George Pell, the man, the priest, bishop, cardinal, the Roman Catholic Church's highest-ranking disgraced official, has always generated controversy with commentators, academics, and the general public over his 50-year career.
Today, with the Australian prelate's case up for appeal in the court system, the issue is not about his guilt or innocence but rather whether he received a fair trial. No case in the past four decades has generated so much controversy. There is intense emotional debate through the international media about the verdict since it was made public on Feb. 26 after a suppression order was lifted.
The nation is polarized, if not traumatized by the verdict. Much of the debate is extremely heated with many angry about the failings of the church. Others say Pell has been made a scapegoat. He was convicted upon the evidence of a single person without corroboration or forensic evidence.
Only the judge, jury, and lawyers directly involved in the trial were privy to this evidence. Pell was not allowed to make his plea in front of a jury, the defense wasn't allowed to show a video showing how it would have been impossible for the acts that he was accused of to have occurred during summing up, and so forth.
Certainly there is plenty of smoke and not a little fire surrounding Pell, a staunch reformer of the finances of the Vatican who carried immense influence within the upper echelons of the church's hierarchy that made him a hero to some and enemy to others, as he tackled corruption within an Italian bureaucracy that had never been under much scrutiny.
At home in Australia, Pell debated top academics on issues of bioscience and ethics on national forums. He put across conservative views concerning homosexuality, gay marriage, women priests, abortion, and in-vitro fertilization. As Archbishop of Sydney, he refused communion to gay and lesbian parishioners and his views on HIV/AIDs infuriated many sections of the community. He curried favor with many conservative politicians, including former ministers and prime ministers.
But for years there have been questions over his role surrounding sexual abuse. As Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell implemented what was called the Melbourne Response to deal with the rising problem within the church. Initially heralded as a positive move to solve a festering problem, it sought to limit the financial culpability of the church and keep abuse cases secret. Those who took their cases to the court system faced almost insurmountable barriers from the Pell-directed church.
Although Pell denied that he knew anything about child abuse by other priests in Ballarat, where he was once living. Numerous claims have been made against him, including early claims he had sex with trainee priests, although that is not illegal. Other allegations included sexual abuse at a boys' camp in 1961, the Eureka Swimming Pool at Ballarat in the 1970s, and during the 1980s at a surf club in Torquay, Victoria, where Pell liked to spend his holidays.
These stories were sometimes reported in the media, with some making it to court. In addition, general stories about priestly abuse of students echoed through the corridors of St. Patrick's. Over the years Pell has made a catalogue of denials about all these accusations, with none ever substantiated.
For years, sections of the Victorian Police, known as the 'Catholic Mafia' protected errant priests from criminal prosecution. However, with gradually-changing demographics within the police, attitudes against child sexual abuse hardened into a prevailing abhorrence with investigators. The increase in sexual assault investigations this decade in Victoria seems to support this.
Cases against priests have been vigorously pursued by the police investigators within an evolved organizational culture that perceives guilt rather than innocence, bringing questions as to whether any member of the clergy could receive a fair trial under the jury system, which is still compulsory in Victoria.
This leads to one of the many questions about the Pell investigation and trial. Why did police start a specific investigation on Pell when there were so many other complaints of sexual abuse to investigate? It began in 2013 without any complainants. According to Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan, testifying in the Melbourne Magistrates Court, the purpose of 'Operation Tethering,' as it was called, was to ascertain whether Pell had committed any crimes which had gone unreported.
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