On Aug. 21, in a 2-1 decision, the conviction of Cardinal George Pell was upheld by the Victoria state Court of Appeal in Melbourne, Australia.
Cardinal Pell is the most senior Catholic official ever to be found guilty of sexual abuse.
In 2014, he was named prefect of the newly created Secretariat for Economy at the Vatican. He also became a member of the Council of Cardinals, a small group of prelates appointed by Pope Francis as his advisers. Cardinal Pell was a member of the council until last December.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, the Holy See’s press office published a statement reiterating “its respect for the Australian judicial system,” but also stating that “the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.”
The carefully worded statement is just one more indication of the contentious nature of the legal process for Cardinal Pell. Many have criticized the trial as unfair and the verdict as preposterous. They point out that the evidence didn’t prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt and argue that the testimony of the only accuser was implausible.
On the other hand, Tim Lennon, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, demanded that Cardinal Pell be immediately laicized without waiting for a possible appeal to the Australian Supreme Court.
Last February, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) opened an investigation into the case of Cardinal Pell after his conviction by an Australian court on five counts of sexual abuse. Matteo Bruni, the Holy See’s press office director, said that the CDF is “awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case.”
The CDF is in a difficult position. It doesn’t have the resources or experts to investigate the accusations against Cardinal Pell and similar cases. If it concurs with the verdict of the courts in Australia, many who have criticized the trial already will think that the CDF is abandoning a cardinal under public pressure. And if it concludes that there’s not enough evidence to find him guilty, the CDF —and the Holy See — will be accused of covering up for a person already found guilty in civil courts of sexual abuse.
But in the future beyond this painful case lays an even more problematic scenario. Cardinal Pell is the first cardinal to be found guilty of sexual abuse in civil courts. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons, France, was convicted in a civil trial for failing to report the abuse of a minor. He presented his resignation to Pope Francis. The Holy Father didn’t accept, preferring to wait until the end of the appeals process to make a decision.
In that case and in similar cases, the CDF and the Holy See have respected and accepted the conclusions of the judges and juries. The judicial systems of France and Australia, as well as of other Western democracies, are usually considered fair and professional.
But what will happen when similar cases arise in countries where the justice system is corrupt, or dominated by a dictator, or clearly prejudiced against Catholics? How will the CDF guarantee justice to the victims of sexual abuse and a fair trial to the accused clergy?
By accepting the verdicts of courts in France and Australia, the CDF is tacitly recognizing its adherence to the rule of law. What will happen when a Catholic bishop is condemned in a country without a serious, reliable judicial system? What will be the reaction of the local political powers when verdicts in their countries are not accepted by the CDF?
And what will be the consequences for the Holy See as an independent state and for Catholics in those countries?