Thursday, December 13, 2018

Down Under, The Verdict Is In... Just Don't Tell The Locals

In a word, it is epochal – for the first time anywhere, a civil court has found a cardinal guilty of sexual abuse.

Capping an 18-month process that predated the wider church's re-immersion in the scandals, the conviction of Cardinal George Pell – reportedly rendered on Tuesday in the Australian state of Victoria – represents the pinnacle of a thread that's marked this fresh round of the crisis across the globe: an emboldened secular effort to enforce accountability where the church's own response is perceived as having failed.

Yet even as the full effect of that reckoning is just beginning to emerge, it'd be difficult at best for any subsequent process to land a more high-profile or ranking target than the 77 year-old brawler who Pope Francis recruited as the Vatican's first-ever "CFO," armed with a broad mandate to clean up the Holy See's famously-troubled books.

First reported by the US-based Daily Beast on Tuesday, then echoed by a host of other outlets, reporting the story has been exponentially complicated by a "suppression order" issued in June by the court, which has banned all media coverage of Pell's months-long trial within Australia, and subjecting local outlets to legal penalties – including imprisonment – should they violate it. Nonetheless, a Whispers op close to Pell confirmed the guilty verdict early Wednesday, while the precise details of the charges remain difficult to fully ascertain.

Arguably the most polarizing figure in Australian public life over the last three decades, even Pell's most embittered critics at home did not expect a conviction, in particular due to the caliber of the cardinal's "celebrity lawyer," described by a source as Down Under's "Johnnie Cochran." (For younger folks, Cochran was the attorney who secured OJ Simpson's 1995 acquittal on the murder of his ex-wife.)

In light of the ban – which the Australian press has addressed in very oblique terms – Melbourne's Herald Sun ran the following on the front page of its Thursday editions....

Before the court-ordered halt to what became a daily press scrum (and with the details of the charges already restricted during the pre-trial hearings), it was understood that the cardinal was to face two separate trials for "historical sexual offenses" alleged in discrete periods, with one set of charges from the 1970s – when Pell was a priest overseeing Catholic education in his native Ballarat – and another from the 1990s, by which time he had become archbishop of Melbourne, Australia's largest local church. However, the specifics of the charges that came to trial remain unclear as several counts were dismissed on lack of evidence during the preliminary hearing, the bulk of which took place in sessions closed to the media and public.

The trial on the second round of charges is slated for March.

An emblematic voice of the aggressive orthodoxy that came in vogue over the last two pontificates, Pell was named archbishop of Sydney (the Oz church's most prominent post) in 2001, and given the country's sole red hat in 2003. As previously relayed, an abuse allegation against the then-archbishop had surfaced in 2002, which saw Pell publicly step aside on his own volition as a retired judge conducted a diocesan investigation that quickly found the report as lacking credibility.

Regardless, the prior claim was used by the cardinal's Roman enemies to block Benedict XVI's intent to name Pell as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in 2010 – a turn of events that ostensibly burnished his reputation with Francis, who quickly recruited the onetime Aussie Rules footballer known for being a "bull in a china shop" to assemble a new Secretariat for the Economy: a move intended to consolidate all the Vatican's financial and personnel operations under one roof (as opposed to the seven Curial "silos" across which they were spread).

Even before taking on the daunting reorganization – and finally landing the Roman post that he was widely believed to have coveted for decades – within a month of his 2013 election, Francis named Pell to the new kitchen cabinet of cardinal-advisers that became known as the "C-9." In a separate development from the court case, the group's latest meeting this week ended with Wednesday's announcement that, in late October, the Pope wrote to Pell and another scandal-tarred member – the Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa – "to thank them for the work they have done in these five years," indicating their respective ousters from the council, whose principal role is to advise Francis on his impending reform of the Roman Curia.

Notably, while Errazuriz said in November that he had met with Francis and had left the "C-9," his statement wasn't made to sound as if the Pope had taken the initiative on the move – and, until now, no mention whatsoever has been made of Pell's removal alongside the Chilean's. Yet amid both the fallout of the court proceedings and the more general sense that Pell had excessively roiled the Vatican waters in seeking to assert his office's dominance – a bureaucratic turf-war that ended up dealing several high-profile setbacks to the Economy arm – it has long been expected that the Australian would not be returning to Rome whatever the trial's outcome, all the more as Pell is 30 months past the retirement age of 75.

At yesterday's standard wrap-up briefing on the latest "C-9" talks – the group's 27th meeting since its creation – the Vatican spokesman Greg Burke cited the Holy See's "respect" for the court order in declining any further comment on Pell's status.

All that said, though the cardinal plans to appeal, it bears recalling that from the time the Australian charges were leveled on him in June 2017, Pell has never been placed under any kind of canonical suspension or penalty, instead stating that he would voluntarily withdraw from public ministry and his Vatican role, yet continuing to wear his collar throughout the court process.

Under the precedent established earlier this year in the case of now-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick – whose two allegations of abusing minors remain to be judged in a Vatican tribunal – a civilly convicted Pell would initially forfeit his place in the College of Cardinals, and a subsequent canonical trial could result in the deprivation of his office as a bishop or outright dismissal from the clerical state. On another front, the cardinal's replacement at the helm of the Economy office has been delayed to avoid the appearance of prejudicing the civil proceedings.

With the Australian church still reeling from last year's release of the damning findings of a years-long national inquest on the church's response to abuse, the Pell verdict comes atop a successful appeal by now-retired Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, whose July conviction on failing to report an allegation in the 1970s was overturned last week by a higher court. As the 68 year-old prelate was pressured to resign his southern archdiocese in the wake of his first trial – at which time he was sentenced to a year of house arrest – though Wilson could theoretically be restored to the post (his successor has yet to be named), the archbishop's disclosure of his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease in the run-up to the trial would ostensibly preclude his return to office.

While the suppression order was slated to last until Pell's second trial and sentencing next year, emergency arguments on the widespread flouting of the media ban outside Australia will be held on Friday. In a preliminary court session this morning on the conviction's emergence, the prospect of five years' imprisonment for journalists who violate the order was floated by a state prosecutor, as well as the draconian possibility of extradition for overseas media who've run the story. (Indeed, it's worth noting that the Aussie reporter cited as the "pinup boy" for shirking a court ban on covering a sealed trial was jailed for publishing about a 1980s proceedings against an abusive priest.)

In the end, however, transparency isn't just a necessary value in any civilized democracy – these days, it's of infinitely more critical import for this church. Accordingly, while a state court in Australia has its rightful jurisdiction – which its citizens have little choice but to heed – it doesn't supersede the First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of the press for an American news-outlet any more than an Iranian clerical court's rulings could determine the practice of religious freedom in these States.

And if that means this scribe won't be booking a trip to Sydney Harbour anytime soon, well, so be it.