Wednesday, February 27, 2019

In Australia, Another Scandal First – A Cardinal Behind Bars... and Out of the Vatican

At least to some degree, the church's reckoning with sexual abuse by clergy has now stretched across 35 years. Yet even for all its tumult, the long journey has never seen anything like these last ten days.

First came the unprecedented dismissal of a onetime cardinal – a serial predator – from the priesthood, then a Pope's first-ever summons of global leadership to tackle the issue....

And now, as never before, another cardinal – a favorite of the last three pontificates, and one of the Catholic world's most prominent and polarizing leaders for a generation – has been remanded to jail following his own conviction on assaulting two boys in the 1990s.

Ten weeks since an Australian state jury found Cardinal George Pell guilty of five counts of historical sex offenses with minors under 16 years of age, the 77 year-old prelate withdrew his application for bail during a hearing this morning in Melbourne and was taken into custody, becoming the church's most senior figure by far to be imprisoned as a result of the scandals.

While no reason was given for the decision to cancel the petition for bail, the cardinal is planning an appeal of his conviction, which has largely been viewed in church circles as a miscarriage of justice – a sense that notably extends even to the famously combative prelate's fiercest critics. In any case, as early Tuesday's lifting of the suppression order that barred Australian media from reporting the December verdict set off an intense round of shockwaves and anger Down Under, Pell's jailing within 24 hours has only served to compound the mood.

As he arrived at court today (below), local reports say a scrum of media and demonstrators returned to encircle the cardinal, with hecklers calling the onetime archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne a "monster" and "animal," and telling him to "rot in hell." Inside the hearing, Pell's attorney stoked further outrage by arguing that the cardinal's conviction for "a plain vanilla sexual penetration case" merited a less severe sentence.

Beyond the courtroom developments, though the Vatican said in a statement yesterday that it was "awaiting the definitive judgement" (i.e. the end of the appeals process) before making any further determinations, the response notably revealed for the first time that Pell has been suspended from ministry since his return home to face the charges in July 2017. Until now, all that had been known was the cardinal's own statement that he would voluntarily stand aside from functioning as a priest for the duration of the court process; as a cardinal enjoys universal faculties that no local bishop may curtail, the Holy See explicitly stated that the precautionary sanction was approved by the Pope, which gave his removal binding force.

Late Tuesday, meanwhile – in a remarkable announcement by tweet – the Vatican's interim press chief Alessandro Gisotti added that Pell "is no longer the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy," the office which Francis tapped the Australian to establish in 2014, with an eye to consolidating the Curia's sprawling and oft scandal-plagued finances. In addition, midday today brought an added development: further defying yesterday's stance of reticence, Gisotti revealed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has already opened a canonical process into Pell following his civil conviction – a surprising step at this point given the church's usual deference to civil proceedings before launching its own.

A standard practice for every Curial official, the cardinal's five-year term as the Holy See's first-ever CFO ended earlier this month. However, for a cardinal-prefect's mandate to be pulled upon its expiration instead of continuing for an open-ended period is far more the exception than the rule.

In any case, as the cloud of the charges combined with the pre-existing sense that Pell's innate zest for turf-wars had done as much harm as good for the Holy See's financial reboot, it has long been expected that the Aussie wouldn't be returning to the Vatican even in the event of his exoneration.

Even before yesterday, the Vatican began clipping the cardinal's status – last December saw the Pope bump Pell off the "C-9," Francis' key group of advisers on the reform of the Curia (seen above in an earlier meeting). While that move was announced as word of the verdict swirled outside Australia, the Vatican said it was decided by the pontiff two months earlier and made known privately to Pell at that point.

Back to the present, the formal end of Pell's tenure as head of the Economy office throws a fresh spotlight on the state of Francis' financial reforms, which have largely stalled amid bureaucratic resistance and the cardinal's 18-month absence.

Though the new Secretariat was initially considered to be the Curia's second-ranking office given its planned oversight of other dicasteries, as much of its slated portfolio has instead remained in the Secretariat of State and the several other entities with a hand in the Vatican's ledgers, it's become quite unclear what kind of mandate a Pell successor in the role would be given, an uncertainty which conspicuously diminishes the prestige and appeal of the post.

As Pell is currently in preliminary custody pending his full sentencing in mid-March, the five counts on which he was convicted carry a maximum imprisonment of ten years each. According to Australian reports, the combination of the cardinal's high profile and the nature of his conviction would likely see him kept in solitary confinement to prevent attacks from other inmates.

The timeframe on Pell's civil appeal is unclear. Should it fail, given this morning's announcement and the new standard established in the case of Theodore McCarrick, the second laicization of a cardinal in modern times would appear inevitable, and all in a matter of months.

That said, unless and until Francis himself should decide otherwise, Pell enjoys full rights as a cardinal with a vote in a hypothetical Conclave until his 80th birthday in June 2021.

Meanwhile, on a separate but related note, fresh off a homily that was seen by many as outshining the Pope's own talk at Sunday's close of the Vatican's abuse summit, the president of the Australian bench, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, has come under an internal investigation in his former archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn that he had disregarded an allegation of abuse levied by a woman there in 2006.

While Coleridge has denied any negligence, the probe remains in process.