Up to this point, the ire of those who believe Cardinal George Pell is innocent of the charges of child sexual abuse brought against him in his home country has been directed largely at the Australian judiciary, most recently at a Victoria appeals court that upheld his conviction on Wednesday in a 2-1 split decision.
Assuming that ruling holds up, however, such frustration could quickly shift from the Australian system to the Vatican’s, because that’s where the action would be next - and honestly, the heartburn there could be much more intense.
Let’s begin with this: There’s a sizeable swath of Catholic opinion, encompassing both historic friends of Pell and enemies, which regards the charges upon which he was convicted as deeply implausible.
What’s been asserted is that a distinctly high-church liturgical fusspot, which is what Pell has always been, inexplicably broke off from a procession during a Sunday Mass in his own cathedral, surrounded by a phalanx of aides, acolytes and other clergy, to enter a busy sacristy on his own. While there, he supposedly discovered two young choir members also alone, and, without being seen by anyone, proceeded to sexually abuse them. He is alleged to have done this while wearing both a cincture and an alb, rendering the physical actions involved difficult to imagine.
Perhaps all that actually happened, and we may never know for sure. However, most Catholics familiar with the dynamics of a busy cathedral on a Sunday would say the odds against it are awfully long.
Pell now has 28 days to decide if he’ll appeal to the Australian High Court, and it’s anyone’s guess what might happen should he elect to do so.
On Wednesday, when the appeals court ruling was announced, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni released a statement saying that while the Holy See respects the Australian judicial process, it’s also aware that Pell maintains his innocence and still has another possibility of appeal. Later, Bruni added that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office with responsibility for abuse cases, is awaiting the “conclusion of the appellate process” in Australia before taking up the case.
Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Pell either decides not to lodge another appeal, or he does and the High Court rules against him. At that point, as far as the nation of Australia is concerned, he would be considered definitively guilty.
In such a situation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would have no choice but to take up the case with an eye toward possible ecclesiastical sanction. The precedent has already been set as to what that punishment would be if Pell is found guilty, because it was imposed on ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick, also charged with abuse of a minor: First, removal from the College of Cardinals, and then expulsion from the priesthood.
Where things get interesting is this: Suppose the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith authorizes a canonical trial against Pell, and, in the end, the conclusion is that the charges can’t be substantiated - in other words, at least as a legal matter, that he’s innocent?
There are at least three obvious consequences that would result, none of which are especially pleasant for Vatican officials to contemplate - and none of which, to be clear, have anything to do with the actual merits of the case.
First, organized groups of abuse survivors and their advocates would denounce such a finding as a sham, yet another case of the clerical system taking care of its own. No doubt, efforts to reach out to victims and to assure them of the Church’s desire for justice would be rendered more difficult.
Second, the global media would come down on the Vatican and the Church like a ton of bricks, making much of the contrast between a civil system of justice that found Pell guilty despite his exalted status and a Church system which, in their view, would have kowtowed to power and influence.
Third, a diplomatic breach with Australia could well ensue, since policy makers and the general public alike might see in such a finding a not-too-subtle criticism of the Australian justice system.
Given that those outcomes are almost as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun, here are the questions that really matter.
Would the Vatican be willing to live with that fallout, should a serious review of the evidence cast doubt on Pell’s guilt?
And, if it’s not, would anyone inside the Catholic system ever take its legal procedures seriously again, if the perception becomes that the Vatican is driven more by public pressure than the exigencies of real justice in such cases?
On the surface, one way out of the dilemma might seem to be the time-honored solution of foregoing a canonical trial in view of Pell’s advanced age (he’s 78), instead asking him to observe a life of prayer and penance. Such a measure, however, probably wouldn’t satisfy anyone - Pell’s supporters would see it as a guilty verdict in sheep’s clothing, and his detractors would wonder why the Vatican is reticent to proceed when the Australians had no problem with a prosecution.
While we await further developments, here’s a preliminary question to chew over.
Is it possible that as challenging as Wednesday’s ruling may have been for the three justices on the appeals court in Victoria, or as hard as the task awaiting the Australian High Court may be if Pell does indeed submit a filing, all that will seem child’s play compared to the headaches awaiting the Vatican’s own judges, depending on what happens next?