ROME – Obviously, the primary beneficiary of Tuesday’s decision by Australia’s High Court to overturn the sexual abuse conviction of Cardinal George Pell is Pell himself. The 78-year-old prelate was definitively acquitted and is now a free man after more than 400 days in prison, mostly in solitary confinement.
For all those presently chafing after a few weeks of a coronavirus quarantine, Pell’s forced isolation for a much longer stretch, and in much less pleasant conditions, may help put things in perspective.
A close second in terms of who benefits from the ruling, however, is the Vatican, which effectively got an early Easter present.
Had things gone the other way, the Vatican would have been compelled to launch its own canonical investigation of Pell, which could have led to his being expelled from the clerical state like ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick. Judges in Rome would have had to examine the evidence, and likely would have reached the same decision as their Australian colleagues, which was that “the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt.”
As Pell put it in a brief statement after the ruling, the case “was not a referendum on the Catholic Church, nor a referendum on how church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia.” It was solely about whether the evidence on the five charges against Pell, resting on the testimony of one witness, surpassed a reasonable doubt, and many reasonable people believed the answer was “no.”
Last August, the Vatican issued a statement that its own course of action regarding Pell “is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case.” Theoretically the Vatican still could undertake a canonical process on the charges in this case, but assuming it reaches the same conclusion as the High Court, it won’t have to go first.
Doing so would have put the Vatican in the position of being seen not only as taking care of one of its own, but also defying a whole nation’s civil justice system. To say the least, the PR fallout would have been abysmal – especially since, by the time an investigation here reached completion, the Vatican probably couldn’t count on the coronavirus any longer to offer a massive global distraction.
Now, the heavy lifting has already been done. If Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, isn’t drafting a thank-you note right now to Australian Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, he really ought to be.
To be clear, it’s not that the Vatican under Pope Francis had any built-in bias in favor of Pell, a well-known theological and political conservative who was among the strongest voices of caution during the pontiff’s raucous Synods of Bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015.
In the beginning, Francis and Pell seemed to have an odd-couple partnership, with the pope entrusting Pell with leadership of the Vatican’s financial reform. By the time Pell was charged in June 2017 for “historical sexual assault offenses,” however, that relationship had soured.
Pell had already lost several power struggles to the Secretariat of State, then led by Parolin and Archbishop, now Cardinal, Angelo Becciu as the sostituto, or “substitute.” Moreover, Pell’s role in the synods, and the broader debates they triggered about the direction of the Church, had led some members of Francis’s team to view him with skepticism.
One could make a much more persuasive case that if Francis and his allies were predisposed to be favorable to a cardinal facing abuse allegations, it was McCarrick, a vocal booster of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina in the run-up to the 2013 conclave and a figure perceived as an ecclesiastical progressive and a friend of the Church in Latin America.
If Francis’s Vatican was willing to set all that aside as evidence mounted against McCarrick, there’s certainly no reason to believe they would have looked the other way for Pell.
From the beginning, however, the Vatican expressed much greater reserve about the Pell case than McCarrick’s, and for a simple reason: Anti-abuse experts, lawyers and close observers of the Australian church were saying the case just didn’t add up.
To believe that Pell was guilty, one would have to accept that an archbishop celebrating Sunday Mass in his own busy cathedral left a closing procession without any aides or other clergy, entered an open and highly trafficked sacristy and found it unoccupied other than two choirboys, managed to sexually assault them in a matter of minutes without being witnessed or removing his liturgical vestments (which would render the sex act highly cumbersome, if not physically impossible), and then returned to the exit outside the cathedral to greet worshipers as if nothing had happened.
In their appeal to the High Court, Pell’s defense team noted that each one of those things is improbable, but if one considers the “compounding improbabilities” of them all happening at once, then the odds soar to something like 10,000-1 – and that’s only if you consider each claim as a 50/50 coin toss, as opposed to being more like 80/20 against.
Vatican officials could do the math, but they also understood that if they had to be the ones to say it out loud, a wide swath of public opinion would have dismissed it as nothing more than the clerical class circling the wagons. In all likelihood, it would have set back Francis’s efforts to convince survivors that he’s earnest about reform.
Instead, the Vatican can breathe a sigh of relief. Pell’s Vatican job has already expired, so they don’t have to worry about easing him out, and they also don’t have to reach any conclusion on the charges against him for themselves.
A lawyer for abuse victims in Australia has said that others may come forward with charges against Pell, and it’s also possible the accuser in this case may pursue a civil claim. Nonetheless, for right now, it’s not just Pell who’s in the clear but Rome.
If you were to ask Pope Francis what he really would like for Easter, he’d probably say an end to the coronavirus, world peace, healing for the earth, justice for the poor, and a new burst of faith. None of that, alas, appears to be on next Sunday’s menu, but for the pope and his team, George Pell’s acquittal probably feels like a lesser, but similarly unexpected, Easter miracle.
One can only imagine, of course, how it must feel to Pell.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.