The Witch-Hunt of Cardinal George Pell

From investigation leaks to character assassination, the Australian media has pursued Cardinal Pell relentlessly.

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - JUNE 29: Australian Cardinal George Pell attends a press conference at the Holy See Press Room on June 29, 2017 in Vatican City, Vatican. Former archbishop of Sydney cardinal Pell has been charged over historic sex assault offenses.

By Nancy Flory Published on June 30, 2017

“Pell can never receive a fair trial,” writes The Australian columnist Angela Shanahan. She is describing the “media witch-hunt” that has dogged Cardinal George Pell for two years. New and vague charges — of “historic sexual offenses” — were filed against Cardinal Pell yesterday morning. Cardinal Pell has repeatedly denied allegations of sexual abuse leveled against him. Still, the media in Australia have repeated claims about the Cardinal’s guilt. They’ve printed leaked information about the investigation against Pell, and claimed that charges were “imminent.” And hostile book on Cardinal Pell (Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell) came out in May. 

The ‘Witch Hunt’

A few brave souls have challenged the Cardinal’s trial-by-media-innuendoAmanda Vanstone, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and “no fan of organized religion,” decries the media’s hysteria over Cardinal Pell. “What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages … [it] is far worse than a simple assessment of guilt. The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial,” wrote Vanstone. “Isn’t it normal to try to ensure a person can get a fair trial,” she asks, “by keeping prejudicial, untested material out of the public arena?”

Legal experts are worried. Andrew Halphen is the co-chairman of the criminal-law section of the Law Institute of Victoria. Halphen believes the leak exhibited a “lack of regard” for Cardinal Pell’s rights. He said it was a “startling affront” to Australia’s legal system. Halphen has serious doubts about whether Cardinal Pell can receive a fair trial.

Robin Speed, Attorney and President of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia, warned prosecutors not to react to “the baying of a section of the mob.” He added that Cardinal Pell could be found innocent. If so, the bungled investigation could warrant a judicial inquiry.

Retired High Court judge Ian Callinan QC worries about the publicity surrounding the cardinal. “Pre-trial by media is a serious problem.”

Financial Reform

Others wonder if the charges are related to Cardinal Pell’s work on Vatican financial reform. George Weigel is a long-time friend of Cardinal Pell’s and a writer at the National Review“That reform has had its ups and downs,” wrote Weigel in yesterday’s column. “But Pell has had his share of successes,” despite corruption or other hurdles he’s faced. 

Weigel says that Cardinal Pell has enemies who for years wanted to do him harm. They vilified him for decades, “charging him with everything from vanity to bullying.” But recently the anti-Pell campaign has gone into “overdrive.”

He added that perhaps Cardinal Pell’s reform threatened enemies with financial or legal problems. Those who wished him harm may have made up more false allegations in Australia.

Cardinal Pell’s Statement

Shortly after charges against him were announced, Cardinal Pell released a statement at the Vatican. For Cardinal Pell, the charges came on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, which was like announcing charges against the President and Congress on July 4.

Cardinal Pell’s claim of innocence was no surprise. He’s been denying any wrongdoing all along. He has stated in part:

These matters have been under investigation now for two years. There have been leaks to the media, there’s been … a relentless character assassination — and for more than a month claims that a decision whether on laying charges is ‘imminent.’ I’m looking forward to finally having my day in court. I’m innocent of these charges, they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me. … All along I’ve been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations.

Cardinal Pell added that the charges offer him an opportunity to clear his name.

Weigel hopes that the “persecution fever gripping Australia breaks.” He wants Cardinal Pell to receive a fair trial. He hopes the jury will take the “rules of evidence … more seriously than those who have been baying for George Pell’s blood.”

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