Given news that Australian Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy and a member of Pope Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers, has been criminally charged with sexual abuse in his native Australia, the question naturally arises of whether such a situation is unprecedented.
Unsurprisingly for an institution with a history as long as the Catholic Church, the answer is “yes and no.”
In fact, no cardinal, and no sitting Vatican official, has ever before faced a criminal indictment for sexual abuse. On the other hand, several figures in both categories have faced criminal charges for a variety of other offenses, and other Catholic bishops around the world have faced abuse charges, which offers the possibility to compare and contrast with the Pell drama.
In 1982, American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, at the time head of the Vatican Bank, was implicated in a massive financial scandal that led to the collapse of an Italian bank. Italian authorities issued a criminal indictment against him, forcing him to remain locked on Vatican property until the country’s Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that as a Holy See passport holder, he enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
Denying any legal responsibility but acknowledging “moral involvement,” the Vatican paid a reported $240 million to creditors of the failed Banco Ambrosiano, although recently that figure was acknowledged to be more on the order of $406 million.
Essentially a “prisoner of the Vatican” until a deal for his freedom was forged, Marcinkus never faced the music in a court of law. He died in 2006, in the United States.
Fast forward 35 years to Thursday, when Australian police filed charges of sexual abuse against Pell, who was hand-picked by Pope Francis to lead a financial reform of the Holy See. Instead of playing the immunity card as Marcinkus did, Pell announced in a press conference in Rome that he was flying back to Australia as soon as possible.
Insisting on his innocence, Pell defiantly said he was looking forward to his “day in court” to have the opportunity to “clear his name.”
In recent Catholic history, two cardinals have not only been indicted but convicted of criminal offenses, even if the charges they faced were relatively minor in comparison.
On the one hand, there’s Italian Cardinal Roberto Tucci, who while still serving as a Jesuit priest planned most of John Paul II’s trips abroad. In 2005, while he was a top Vatican Radio official, he was convicted by Italian courts of being responsible for polluting the environment with electromagnetic waves from a transmission tower.
Technically, the charges were for “dangerous launching of objects,” an Italian law dating back to the Middle Ages when it was illegal to throw garbage out of a window into the street.
Tucci, together with Father Pasquale Borgomeo, the station’s director general, was sentenced to 10 days in jail, though the sentences against the two Jesuits were automatically suspended. The sentence was overturned on appeal in 2007.
Another cardinal to be criminally convicted was Cardinal Michele Giordano, then of Naples, who was indicted by Italian prosecutors for fraud.
Giordano went through a full criminal trial, though he never set foot in court, in a case arising from a real estate scam orchestrated by his brother. The case generated church-state tensions when police insisted on examining confidential documents of the Naples archdiocese, in addition to financial records that Giordano provided.
Giordano was acquitted in that case in 2000, only to find himself in the dock again in 2002, facing criminal charges in another real estate swindle. This time he was found guilty and sentenced to four months in prison and a fine, though that verdict was suspended and eventually overturned on appeal.
Giordano died in December 2010.
In that same year, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, who succeeded Giordano in Naples was named a target by Italian prosecutors for his role in alleged corruption in public works contracts while he was Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples from 2001 to 2006.
The investigation of Sepe came as part of a widening corruption scandal in Italy known as the “Great Works” probe. With the accusations against him, he joined an array of politicians and businessmen to an alleged network of kickbacks in major public projects, such as the Jubilee Year of 2000 and the recent meeting of the G8 in earthquake-damaged L’Aquila, Italy
Sepe denied any wrongdoing. The investigation is, technically, ongoing, although Italian observers would say that the odds of the case against Sepe ever being reopened are very long.
At the time, both the Vatican and Sepe vowed to cooperate with the probe instead of attempting to invoke diplomatic immunity, which vis-à-vis the broader issue of bishop accountability was seen as striking and as a positive step forward.
Though he’s the lone cardinal to date to face actual criminal charges for sexual abuse, Pell is hardly the first Catholic bishop to find himself in court over an abuse scandal.
French Bishop Pierre Pican of the Bayeux-Lisieux diocese was prosecuted, convicted, and given a three-month prison sentence in 2001 on the grounds of concealing abuse charges against others, though that sentence was suspended. In court proceedings, he said that he became aware of the abuse through personal conversations with the priest involved, which he considered confidential.
This case returned to the headlines in 2010, when it emerged that a former senior Vatican official, Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos of the Congregation for Clergy, had written a letter to Pican to congratulate him for refusing to denounce one of his own priests.
Beyond failure to report cases of clerical sexual abuse, bishops have been prosecuted for their own sexual offences. For instance, Archbishop Anthony Apuron, 70, of Guam, has been accused of molesting at least five altar boys in the 1960s and 70s.
He has denied the allegations, has not been charged and refused calls to step down, until he was forced by the Vatican to do so. His trial is ongoing.
Other sorts of scandals have also occasioned criminal charges against bishops in various parts of the world.
American Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix, for instance, was charged with leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident in 2003, an incident in which a pedestrian O’Brien struck died. He was found guilty after a four-week trial in 2004 and sentenced to four years probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
Bishop Raymond Lahey, formerly of the Antigonish diocese in Canada, pled guilty on 2009 to possession of child pornography. In 2009, Canadian Border Service officials seized his laptop, which allegedly contained images of child pornography, while Lahey was reentering the country from a trip abroad.
He was suspended from his priestly and sacramental duties, and was eventually laicized in 2012.
Pell has been called to appear in front of the judge in Australia on July 18. The cardinal has vowed to fly as soon as he has clearance from his doctors, but it’s unclear if he’ll be there 20 days from now. However, it’s worth pointing out that it’s possible Pell will show up at that court and the judge will rule there’s insufficient evidence to sustain the charges.
If that’s the case, the trial would be dismissed before it actually starts.