ROME — As a young man, George Pell was a rising star in the rough-and-tumble sport of Australian Rules Football, which features NFL-style hits but without the helmets and pads. Later, as a priest, bishop, archbishop and eventually cardinal, Pell earned a reputation as an ecclesiastical bruiser too, willing to steamroll over opposition if that’s what it took.
As it turns out, all that was merely a prologue to the real fight of Pell’s life: trying to clear his name against what were initially charges, and what’s now a criminal conviction upheld on an initial appeal, of child sexual abuse against two choirboys while he was the archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001.
As things stand, it seems likely Pell will appeal his conviction to Australia’s High Court, amounting to his final chance at legal exoneration. Although the High Court rejects most such requests, given the publicity surrounding the Pell case, as well as a split verdict at the first level of review, some legal observers believe there’s a decent chance the country’s highest court will at least agree to take a look.
In the meantime, Pell will continue to serve his six-year sentence in a Melbourne prison in solitary confinement, spending all but an hour of every day in his cell and with human contact restricted largely to occasional visits from a nun serving as the prison chaplain.
Depending on who’s surveying the situation, Pell’s fall from grace is either the most dramatic blow yet for the rights of victims in the clerical abuse saga, or a tragic miscarriage of justice in which public and political pressure appears to be riding roughshod over the facts.
Here’s how we got here.
In June 2017, prosecutors in Pell’s home state of Victoria formally charged him with several alleged offenses, one set having to do with incidents at the Melbourne cathedral while he was archbishop and another with acts that allegedly took place in a swimming pool in his hometown of Ballarat while he was a priest in the 1970s. That second set of charges was eventually dropped.
Pell vigorously declared his innocence, and he vowed to return home to clear his name. Pope Francis, thanking Pell for his service, granted him a leave of absence from his Vatican role, a job that eventually lapsed when his five-year term expired.
A first trial on the cathedral charges in October 2018 ended in a hung jury, with a majority of jurors reportedly prepared to vote for acquittal. A second jury unanimously found Pell guilty in December 2018, leading Pell to file an immediate appeal.
Victoria’s three-judge appeals court heard arguments June 5-6 and rendered its verdict on Aug. 21. Two judges rejected Pell’s arguments, while a third issued a dissent suggesting the conviction was unreasonable based on the evidence presented.
From the beginning, opinions about the case have differed sharply, often depending on whether one places the emphasis on the personality of Pell’s accuser or the content of what he said at trial.
In upholding Pell’s conviction, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said she found Pell’s accuser, whose identity has not been revealed and who’s known only as “Witness J,” to be a “witness of truth.” Observers who were present for the trial say the man, who was 13 at the time the incident is supposed to have occurred, came across as deeply sincere and convincing.
On the other hand, observers who focus on the substance of that testimony often find it difficult to believe.
The claim is that a newly installed archbishop with a reputation as a liturgical stickler inexplicably abandoned a procession during the high Sunday Mass in his own cathedral, unaccompanied by aides or anyone else, entered a highly trafficked sacristy and found two choirboys alone, abused them unobserved and while wearing vestments that would render the physical acts involved highly cumbersome, and then returned to church as if nothing had happened.
Even for many longtime foes of Pell over matters both theological and political, such a scenario leaves space for reasonable doubt.
Trying to put the credibility of the witness together with the seemingly unlikely claim may have been what the current archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, had in mind when he recently suggested that perhaps the accuser was right that something had happened, but wrong about Pell being the one responsible.
No matter what happens in the High Court, Pell’s troubles may not end there.
When the appeals court ruling was issued, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni released a statement saying that Rome would not launch a case against Pell until the Australian justice system has run its course.
Sooner or later that moment will come, and then presumably the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will open its own process with an eye toward the same sort of sanction imposed upon former cardinal Theodore McCarrick in the U.S., meaning expulsion from the College of Cardinals and, possibly, the priesthood.
One major difference between the two situations is that while most decision-makers in the Vatican accepted the allegations against McCarrick, there remains real doubt about Pell — again, even from some Vatican personnel who viewed the Australian as an unwelcome bull in a china shop while he was the pope’s financial czar.
If Pell’s legal odyssey to date has been an experiment in the collision between public pressure and private judgment in Australia, the same could be true of the Vatican when, and if, it’s compelled to take up the case.
While we await the final act in the Pell drama, the 78-year-old prelate at the center of it all remains behind bars, undergoing what he’s reportedly described to friends as a “forced retreat.” A fighter for his entire life, Pell’s final and highest stakes battle may not be over quite yet.