The great author G.K. Chesterton was once challenged about his skepticism of the judicial system in Great Britain. He replied that Christians often have doubts about official justice because they remember “the unfortunate experience” of their founder with the same.
That skepticism is my response to the latest of Cardinal George Pell’s various legal setbacks in Australia. Although a Vatican statement said something about not disrespecting Australia’s system of justice, I feel no such constraint. What I see is a case of scapegoating and persecution that is not ideological — which is what makes it more frightening.
If someone persecutes the Church saying bluntly that it is because religion is nonsense or that Christ really could not have been both God and man, there would, at least, be a clarity of ideas. The Church is accustomed to such persecution. But if, instead, the persecution pretends to be neutral about religious belief and then makes up incredible charges against a cleric whose position makes him a stand-in for the Church and religion, it is more vicious and insidious.
We have seen such things before, especially in the 20th century. The big change is that it was not the secular, Westernized, capitalist state that was doing the punishing, but the Communist regimes of various totalitarian states. The Hungarian Communists went after Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty not because he was a believer, they said, but because he was a fascist and a monarchist and the biggest landowner in Hungary who had participated in a conspiracy against the People’s Republic. He was physically tortured until he signed a false confession and spent years in prison, sequestered in an embassy and then in exile.
Cardinal Josef Slipyj, a Ukrainian Catholic archbishop, was accused of being a Nazi collaborator, and was imprisoned for 18 years and then sent into exile. Another cardinal, Blessed Aloysius Stepinac of Croatia, was tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Later he was restricted to house arrest.
Although I do not know Cardinal Pell, a holy bishop I esteem has enormous respect for him. Besides that, as an American, I think that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that accusations are sometimes false. And as a priest, the murky evidence against Cardinal Pell, based on the logistics of the supposed crime scene, is unconvincing to me. The public venue of the sacristy, at a time right after Eucharist was celebrated, implies the movement of all sorts of people.
In a capitalist society, the media provide the means of torture. The descent of Cardinal Pell to the hell of the Australian system of justice has been to the drumbeat of hostility to the Church. Just as Communists always presented cases against priests, bishops, and cardinals in terms of historical crimes (like Nazi war atrocities or treasonous activities), the new persecution does not make anti-religious animus explicit. There was a climate after the war that gave legitimacy to the persecution. That climate of opinion became political and eventually involved Cold War tensions, but it served the purpose of giving a reason of state to the punishing of an institution that was powerful in the past and a threat to the well-being of the commonwealth.
In the present climate of opinion, a prosecutor can count on a great deal of popular anger against clergy and religious by arguing allegations of sexual abuse or even imprudence. Thanks in part to the distortions created by sectors of mass media, great portions of the public automatically assume there must be something to the claims, outrageous as they may be.
The case itself is not as important as whose ox is gored by it. Look at how the mainstream media treated Michael Avenatti’s representations of sexual abuse before he was discredited. As Oscar Wilde noted, “In the old days, men had the rack. Now they have the press.” In Cardinal Pell’s case, the press has acted like the execution machine in Kafka’s “The Penal Colony,” which writes out the alleged offense on the condemned’s body until he dies. (In the story, the machine malfunctions and the executioner is killed instead of the condemned person, an unusual note of optimism for Kafka.)
No one is going to lose popularity railing against sexual impropriety of influential people, even when they make allegations that are false. Few people are likely to want to challenge false claims about sexual abuse because the alleged victim is seen as having the benefit of the doubt, regardless of the evidence presented. It takes what President Kennedy called a profile of courage to go against the wind and tide of prejudiced fashion that requires a guilty party.
In a society that is involved in cultural struggle for identity and values, the Church often represents the reactionary forces that the modern spirit of libertinism regards as the enemy. Therefore, nothing is more convenient to neutralizing the moral authority of the Church as it fights for human life and for sane sexuality reflecting belief in absolute and transcendent values than to impute scandalous sexual behavior to prelates.
In our present day, we can’t call them fascists, but we can say they are libidinous hypocrites. As whatever said against the bishops persecuted in Communist countries was seconded by a press that was more interested in agitation and propaganda than the truth, so it is hard today to profess loyalty to the accused, no matter how innocent.
I question the motivation behind the tarring and feathering of a prelate of world renown. Cardinal Pell is a target because of what he represents. A named enemy gives coherence to groupthink.
Cleveland’s first bishop was unjustly accused of soliciting a woman in a confessional by clerical enemies and was exiled to die in another state. His tomb is in our cathedral, and there is a statue of him on the street outside of it. Every time I pass it I think of the cross he bore. His triumph came after his death when his funeral was a popular apotheosis. I hope that Cardinal Pell’s reputation does not have to wait so long. May the Lord Jesus, the Suffering Servant console him.
Msgr. Richard Antall is pastor of Holy Name Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and author of the new book “The Wedding” (Lambing Press, $16.95).
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