ORLANDO, Florida – Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a longtime friend of Australian Cardinal George Pell who’s now facing a criminal indictment for sexual abuse, said “I don’t want to believe” the charges and that Pell’s determination to cooperate with the judicial process and acknowledge he’s not above the law “only shows the mettle of a great man.”

“He’s the kind of man about whom I would find such reports to be completely contrary to everything he stands for,” Dolan said.

“I feel terribly sad for my good friend Cardinal George Pell, sad for him and sad with him. I want to be very supportive, because I have immense admiration for him,” Dolan said. “I admire him, and I want to stick with him.”

Dolan spoke to Crux in Orlando, Florida, during the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” a summit of more than 3,000 bishops, priests and religious, and laity to discuss the future of evangelization efforts in American Catholicism.

His faith in Pell, Dolan stressed, should not come at the expense of concern for abuse victims.

“We’ve got to cooperate with the civil authorities, as Cardinal Pell is doing here,” Dolan said. “Never again must a victim-survivor feel that if he or she comes forward that they won’t be believed.

“But the most basic thing victim-survivors have always asked for is justice, and justice means getting to the truth of what happened. In this case, I’m praying, and I really believe, that the truth will vindicate Cardinal Pell,” he said.

On other matters, Dolan said:

  • The spirit of the July 1-4 Convocation of Catholic Leaders is to help Catholics be able to say of the Church, “We’ve got a wheelbarrow full of problems, but we’ve got a truckload full of remedies, and let’s celebrate that.”
  • Anti-Christian persecution around the world is becoming a growing threat, and Catholic leaders in the U.S. need to steal a page from their Jewish colleagues in responding to it – lighting a fire under the White House, Congress, and representatives of other countries whenever a new atrocity breaks out. “Our Jewish brothers and sisters do it magnificently,” Dolan said, “so why aren’t we?”
  • Pope Francis may have a unique ability to call offenders out on anti-Christian persecution because of his wide popularity. “We’ve got Joe DiMaggio as pope who’s on a 56-game hitting streak, right?” he said, suggesting that gives Francis the capacity to “get away with things” that would have generated backlash for other popes.

Dolan spoke to Crux on July 1, shortly after the Convocation of Catholic Leaders opened. The following are excerpts of that conversation.

You’re putting together more than 3,000 people representing every slice of the Catholic pie into the Hyatt Regency in Orlando over the July 4 holiday. What are you hoping is going to happen?

Let me tell you a little anecdote. A year and a half ago I was chosen to be head of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and I was very honored to be chosen. They told me, ‘Oh, by the way, you now have to be part of the coordinating committee for this Convocation of Catholic Leaders July 1-4 down in Orlando.’ I said, ‘What is this about? I don’t want to spend my Fourth of July in Orlando! Who in the world thought of this?’ They said, ‘Well, kind of you did, when you were president of the conference!’ So, I thought, I guess I better go!

What was the wisdom of it, or at least what I hope is the wisdom? You know the four marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. In a way, “one” and “Catholic” almost seem to be opposite ends of the pole. We’re united, but at the same time there’s an extraordinarily radiant diversity in the Catholic world. What we want to do is bring those two together, the ‘one’ and the ‘Catholic.’ That’s going to work.

We don’t want the caricature of the Catholic Church to dominate, which is that we’re splintered, we don’t get along, we’re at each other’s throats, there’s terrible division in the Church, and so on. I think what the bishops are going to say is, ‘Baloney! Let’s show Exhibit A this is not the case, that there is a magnificent diversity when it comes to the cosmetics of the faith, but when it comes to the substance, Jesus, his Church, his teaching, we are one. We’re going to mirror that, we’re going to show that, by coming together.’

So, the bishops invited people to come. We started with our own leaders in the dioceses, but most bishops, like myself … I said to our 15 or 16 leaders, I not only want you there, I want you to pick two or three people from the field, these are your meat-and-potato Catholics, to come be part of this. That’s what we’ve got. We’ve got over 80 percent of the dioceses in the United States who have sent delegates, and darn it, it’s going to be effective. I’m already sensing it.  What are the four themes? We’ve got discipleship, joy, unity and mission, and it’s already happening.

We started five or six years ago saying, ‘Look, Catholic people are beat up. We went through the scandals, the sex abuse stuff, we’ve got parish mergers, we’re closing schools, every time we open the paper there’s some other groaning news about the Church.’

To say nothing of the political atmosphere in the country and the way the Church can get swept up into it.

Right. You’ve got all the Pew Center stuff [documenting rising numbers of ex-Catholics], and it’s easy to be deflated, easy to be dispirited, easy to lose heart. We thought we had to come together and almost allow Catholics to hold their heads high and say, ‘We’ve got a wheelbarrow full of problems, but we’ve got a truckload full of remedies, and let’s celebrate that.’

Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium also provided an impetus for this, right?

We bishops almost felt it was a providential seal of approval for this endeavor. What he said is that there’s no room for sourpusses in the Church. Let’s hold our head high – we’re realistic about the problems we’ve got, but we’re not going to be dominated by them. Jesus kept saying, ‘Be not afraid!’ Let’s celebrate that, and I think that’s what this is about.

So the point is to figure out the concrete application of Evangelii Gaudium in the American here-and-how?

I think if somebody said, ‘Tell me in 30 seconds the goal of this,’ I’d say, ‘To make The Joy of the Gospel real, doable, in the Catholic Church in the United States, and to demonstrate that in fact it’s already happening.”

I’ve asked a few people if it’s on purpose that this is happening in the middle of the Fortnight for Freedom, and I can’t seem to get a clear answer. Do you know?

The reason we’re doing it in the summer is because of cheap rates …

That’s the definitive answer?

Take that to the bank!

Anyway, it’s a happy coincidence, because I know you’ve become increasingly outspoken and engaged on anti-Christian persecution around the world. Where would like to see the church in the U.S. step up on that issue right now?

As I look back, and I’m very glad we did it, is that when I was president of the conference we set up the Ad-Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, because it was extraordinarily clear to me, and it was a huge consensus among my brother bishops, that the threats to religious freedom in the United States were heightened at that time. We set it up, [Archbishop] Bill Lori chaired it and did a stellar job – we just gave him approval by saying you’re no longer an ad hoc committee, you’re a standing committee.

What happened toward the end of my three years is that I said, ‘We can’t just become intramural here. We can’t just worry about the threats to religious freedom in the United States, as real as they are, because they shrink when you talk about the threats to survival of the Catholic Church elsewhere, the Christian church, that’s undergoing vicious persecution. We’ve also got to be very, very strenuous in our defense of them.’

Being an historian, I also know that has characterized the bishops’ conference for a century. We’re getting ready to celebrate the centenary of the conference, and we’ve always been very solicitous of areas of the world where there has been persecution. I’m thinking when there was a persecution of the church in Mexico, I’m thinking of when I grew up when daily we recalled the persecution of the church behind what we called the ‘Iron Curtain.’ That solicitude has always been part of Catholic chemistry in the United States.

I’m afraid that solicitude has been dulled, and we’ve got to perk it up. So what do you do? Everybody says the same thing: Prayer, relief to the people, and we also do advocacy. I think on that third point, we’re not as vigorous as we should be.

I live in New York, and, as you know, New York is blessed with the biggest Jewish community in the world. I can’t take credit for it, it was my predecessors, but we have a very, very warm relationship with the Jewish community in New York. They’ll say to us, they will lecture me and point a finger, saying, ‘Get with it, buster! If you people think this is going to go away by prayer, forget it. We tried that, we’ve been there.’ They’re a model to me.

For example, if you’ve got a Jewish person who takes refuge in an embassy someplace to escape persecution, you’ve got the weight of the White House, Congress, the business community, and everybody else, on behalf of that person. Bravo! I appreciate that kind of advocacy.

I’ve taken it upon myself in New York that whenever I hear about an atrocity – it might be China, it might be Pakistan, it might be India, it might be, sadly, in the Middle East – I will call the consul general from that country in New York and say, ‘I want to come see you about this.’ Most of the time, they’ll say, ‘Thanks, but let me come see you.’ I don’t care which way it goes, but we’ve got to make this uncomfortable for them. We’ve got to say to them, ‘This is unacceptable. I’m going to bring this out, I’m going to put an article on this in my Catholic newspaper, I’m going to talk about this on my radio show, and I’m going to tell them about my meeting with you so you better give me something positive to say.’ That’s the kind of advocacy we need. Our Jewish brothers and sisters do it magnificently, so why aren’t we?

Have you seen any concrete results from that advocacy? For instance, have you gone into see one of these consul generals and a week later somebody’s out of jail?

I haven’t seen that kind of concrete result. More often than not, it won’t be that somebody is in jail. It’ll be an attack, and you’ll ask about more government protection.

I also try, and I think this heightens the credibility and the effectiveness, to get others to go with me. When I went in to see the Egyptian consul, I asked the Coptic bishop to go with me. I said, ‘I need you to come in.’ Usually they say, ‘You bet I’ll go with you, because I can’t get in on my own but if I come with you I think I’ll be able to.’

I also think we bishops have to start thinking about some visits. We do that pretty well anyway, but I think we have to do it in a much more coordinated way, visiting the hot zones. The bishops who are on the board of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association are thinking of going to Egypt soon.

Have you run into any problems doing this sort of thing?

One challenge is knowing what to do when you get mixed messages from the local bishops. You don’t want to make things worse for them. Here’s an example, something that happened at least a decade ago when I was the chairman of Catholic Relief Services and we visited India. We were up in Kandhamal, where Christians had just been slaughtered, and we met with one bishop who said, ‘You’ve got to bring this home, you’ve got speak about this, you’ve got to go to Congress.’ I was with another bishop just a couple hours later who said, ‘Please don’t speak about this, it will only make things worse.’ I sympathize with what Pope Pius XII went through in the Second World War … he was ready to say things, and then the local bishops said ‘Don’t, it will make it worse.’

What’s happening now is that enough bishops come to the United States that I’m able to accompany them to some of the consul generals, maybe bring them on TV shows or before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Then, you know you’re getting it from the horse’s mouth and they’re only saying things they know will be of benefit to the church.

You mention Egypt. Pope Francis was recently there, where among other things he condemned attacks on the Coptic Christian minority, including the Palm Sunday bombings of two churches just before he arrived that left 45 people dead, and insisted on greater respect for religious freedom. The last time a pope did that was Benedict XVI, and the fallout was massive – Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Vatican, Al-Azhar froze bilateral dialogue with the Vatican, and the Egyptian president denounced what the pope said as “interference” in Egypt’s internal affairs. Yet this time, Francis got a hero’s welcome and was applauded at every turn. What do you think made the difference?

Probably the difference is that now we’ve got Joe DiMaggio as pope who’s on a 56-game hitting streak, right? Nobody’s saying a bad thing about him, and he can get away with a lot that other popes couldn’t because the narrative is really a snowball. It’s almost as if people are saying, ‘You don’t want to criticize this guy.’

From the positive point of view, you’ve got more and more people saying, ‘We need somebody saying these things and we need to get behind him, because he’s one of the only sane leaders on the world stage today with any kind of credibility and we need to get behind him.’ I think it’s the personality, the influence, and the extraordinarily popular narrative this pope has.

Finally, I know you’re a good friend of Australian Cardinal George Pell, who’s recently been charged with historical sexual offenses in his home country. He’s strenuously denied the charges, and he’s indicated that he won’t hide out in the Vatican but go back to Australia to fight the charges. I know you have great sympathy for victims of abuse, but what’s your reaction to this indictment?

I feel terribly sad for my good friend Cardinal George Pell, sad for him and sad with him. I want to be very supportive, because I have immense admiration for him. I would consider myself a friend of probably two decades, and my admiration for him has only been enhanced recently by his very vigorous clean-up in the finances of the Holy See. I appreciate him, I admire him, and I want to stick with him.

Second, he’s been under the gun for twelve or fifteen years, and I think he’s cooperated fully. Now there are some new charges – in the past, the complaints were that he was not as aggressive as he should have been, and I thought he was very humble and realistic and cooperative about that. These charges are new, and I don’t want to believe them. He’s the kind of man about whom I would find such reports to be completely contrary to everything he stands for. We’re talking about a man who introduced very strong child protection when he was an archbishop in Australia.

My third point is that the way he has reacted to this only shows the mettle of a great man. What he said is, ‘These charges are completely false, I will continue to strongly tell you I’m innocent, but the church must take this seriously, I must cooperate with the law, I must now go home and defend myself. As painful as it is to me – and I also think it’s sad for the Church because we’re losing a great apostle, hopefully only temporarily – I have to go home and clear my name.’ That only intensifies my admiration for George Pell.

Put on your church historian hat for a minute. The last time a senior Anglo-Saxon Vatican official was criminally charged by another country was Archbishop Paul Marcinkus in the Vatican bank scandals. In that case, Marcinkus holed up in the Vatican for a long stretch until a deal could be struck allowing him to go back to the States, evading prosecution. This time, Pell is saying I’m not above the law and I’m going back to face the music, whatever it may be.

Does that contrast suggest progress, that the Church has learned a lesson?

You bet it does. Right away, what George Pell has said is that I have to respect and cooperate with the judicial process, as strongly as I dispute these charges and as confident as I am that the judicial process with which I need to cooperate is going to vindicate me.

You’re right about Paul Marcinkus, and look what’s happened – there are still books being written about it, because nobody knows the truth. It was hidden, and it became the plot of every Dan Brown thriller you’d ever want to have.

What Cardinal Pell is saying is, ‘I love the Church too much to let that happen, and I believe so much in the honor and integrity of my name that I’m going to be vindicated here.’ The one who did that here was [Cardinal] Joe Bernardin [of Chicago] in the mid-1990s. When he faced this, he said, ‘I deny this, and I pray for the man making the accusations, but I’m not above the law. I have to let the police investigate this, and I need to step aside while that’s going on.’

Bravo, and bravo to Cardinal Pell.

You don’t intend your faith in your old friend to come off as insensitivity to the suffering of victims of abuse, do you?

Absolutely not. We’ve learned the hard way that we have to take seriously every allegation that comes forward, and at the heart of everything we do in this area must be compassion for victim-survivors, reaching out to them, hearing their voices, and providing the support they need.

Beyond that, we’ve got to cooperate with the civil authorities, as Cardinal Pell is doing here. That’s paramount. And I’m glad that Cardinal Pell is taking this seriously, and that the Holy See is taking it seriously. Never again must a victim-survivor feel that if he or she comes forward that they won’t be believed.

But the most basic thing victim-survivors have always asked for is justice, and justice means getting to the truth of what happened. In this case, I’m praying, and I really believe, that the truth will vindicate Cardinal Pell.