In late June, the Victoria Police announced that they are “filing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences” against Cardinal George Pell.
Cardinal Pell is Pope Francis’ chief financial adviser, the previous head of the Catholic Church in Australia, and the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged with sexual abuse. He’s also my old boss.
Upon reading about the charges against Cardinal Pell, I struggled to sleep the next night, kept awake by two sickening possibilities: either Cardinal Pell, a man who has spent his life ministering to others, has had to endure years of defamation and now faces charges over crimes for which he is innocent; or this clergyman, whom I came to deeply respect during my time working as a youth minister in Sydney, is a sex offender.
News of the charges wasn’t a complete shock. As Cardinal Pell himself said previously in a statement to the media, “these matters” have been under investigation for nearly two years.
It’s an investigation I’ve followed with interest, both as a previous associate of Cardinal Pell’s and as a law student, and it’s an investigation that I think has been characterised by three things in particular: confused allegations, leaks to the media, and above all, a relentless assassination of Cardinal Pell’s character.
Now that charges have been issued, it’s hard to know what to think. As I write, Victoria Police have not yet made known the specific nature of the charges, who the accusers are, or when the alleged incidents are meant to have taken place.
Yet, after a sleepless night, I arose that next morning with a resolute conviction that I wanted to weigh in, even if my words are little more than a raindrop in what will inevitably become a full blown media storm.
I worked for Cardinal Pell in 2012, as part of a gap year I did with an organisation called NET (National Evangelisation Teams) in Australia. I, along with five other young Catholic adults, were assigned to the Sydney Team. Our full-time job was to do youth ministry in the archdiocese; running high school retreats, organising youth groups, and helping out at large scale events.
Right from the moment I arrived in Australia, what struck me about Cardinal Pell was the stark differences in the attitudes people held towards him. To some, Cardinal Pell was a monster, a man who embodied everything bad about that Catholic Church and who had allegedly been complicit in covering up sexual abuse by Australian priests.
Yet, among the Catholics that Cardinal Pell ministered to, and among those who worked with him, almost all held him in the highest regard — Cardinal Pell was a pillar of the Catholic community in Sydney, a faithful priest, and most fundamentally, a good man.
I crossed paths with Cardinal Pell at numerous events during my time in Sydney. Despite inevitably being swamped by people at these events, the cardinal always made time to speak with my team and myself. He would inquire about our success ministering to the youth of Sydney and was often quick to share a joke.
I never got to know the cardinal in any great depth, but there is one memory of him that I have always held on to.
Towards the beginning of our year in Sydney, the cardinal invited us out to lunch, to welcome our team to the diocese. Over the course of the meal, the topic of the cardinal’s ongoing theological study arose, and I expressed to him that one day I too hoped to study theology, perhaps at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney. However, because I was an international student, the cost of tuition was daunting.
Hearing all of this, the Cardinal invited me to write him a letter, telling me that he would “see what I can do”. In the coming months, I learnt that upon receiving my letter, Cardinal Pell had personally written to the deputy vice chancellor on my behalf, inquiring into the possibility of financial aid.
When the cardinal left on a trip to Rome, he ensured that his private secretary followed up on the matter, checking that the university had contacted me.
This man, responsible for ministering to more than 4 million people in Sydney, who I’m sure had countless demands on his schedule, took the time to help me, some 18-year old kid from New Zealand, who he had never met before, try to obtain a scholarship.
Upon reading about the charges against him, my gut reaction was to aggressively defend the cardinal and condemn his accusers. But I can’t do that, because the reality is that the Catholic Church, a faith that has always been a home for me, has been rocked time and again by accounts of sexual abuse that have been proven true in the courts. Every allegation needs to be taken seriously, and as the current Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, wrote in his statement after the police announcement, “victims should be listened to with respect and compassion and their complaints investigated and dealt with according to the law”.
I don’t know the truth of these charges against Cardinal Pell and neither do you. That remains to be determined when he appears in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 26.
What I do know, as a student of the law, is that Cardinal Pell has the right to due process and a fair trial. Yet, already it seems that those rights are at risk.
Recently, Robin Speed, president of the Australian Rule of Law Institute, cautioned against prosecutors acting against Cardinal Pell “in response to the baying of a section of the mob”. Speed, who is a qualified attorney, has also warned that if the cardinal is found innocent, the long, drawn-out conduct of the two-year investigation could well warrant a judicial inquiry.
Back in May, Amanda Vanstone, an Australian politician who has held several ministerial portfolios, confessed that she was “no fan of organised religion” but that “George Pell’s trial by media has to stop”. “What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages,” she wrote, “ . . . The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial.”
Like anyone facing criminal charges, Cardinal Pell is also entitled to the presumption of innocence, until proven guilty. It’s a presumption that all too often gets done away with in the arena of public opinion, especially is cases like this one.
Catholic priests are uniquely stigmatised as sexual abusers, despite the reality that most other professions (teachers, coaches, counsellors, physicians, etc.) have similar, if not higher rates of sexual abuse. The temptation, when hearing about cases such as this, is to think “here we go again, another paedophile priest”.
Yet, we should not allow the rage we quite rightly feel against the sexual abuse of minors to weigh against the presumption of innocence, in this case or any other. To permit such a tipping of the scales would only serve to prevent the very justice we seek.
The cardinal, for his part, has done nothing that would displace the presumption of innocence. He has given his full cooperation to the investigation up until this point; has supported the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; and as a bishop in Australia, he introduced systems for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.
Soon after news of the charges broke, Cardinal Pell announced that he would return to Australia to have his day in court, stating “I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me”.
It will be the burden of the prosecution to prove otherwise.
As we watch this case unfold, I’ll be praying — for truth and justice to win out, for the cardinal, and for all those affected by sexual abuse. I hope you’ll join me.
Samuel Brebner is a 23-year-old New Zealander currently in his fourth year of studies towards a Bachelor of Laws degree.