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Australian Cardinal George Pell delivers a statement in the Vatican press office June 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“I’m looking forward finally to having my day in court. I repeat I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me,” Cardinal George Pell said in a statement he read to the media in a crowded Vatican press hall at 8.30 a.m. on the morning of June 29.
He was referring to the “multiple charges in respect of historic sexual abuse” that have been made against him by the Victoria police, and were made public on June 29. The charges are criminal and he has been summoned to appear before Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.
He pointed out that “these matters” have been under investigation for nearly two years, and said, “There have been leaks to the media, relentless character assassination and for more than a month claims that a decision on laying charges is ‘imminent’.”
The cardinal, who turned 76 earlier this month, revealed that he had kept Pope Francis “regularly informed throughout this lengthy process” and said he had “spoken to him in recent days about the need to take leave to clear my name.” He expressed his gratitude to the pope for granting him “this leave to return home” and also to his doctors for advising him how best to do this.
The ever-combative Australian cardinal added, “I have been consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations” and said, “news of these charges strengthens my resolve and (the) court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return to my work in Rome.”
The cardinal did not take any questions from the press, but after he had read his statement, the director of the Vatican press office, Greg Burke, read a statement on behalf of the Holy See.
It said “the Holy See has learned with regret the news of charges filed in Australia against Cardinal George Pell for decades-old actions that have been attributed to him.”
The statement added that when the cardinal became aware of the charges, “acting in full respect for civil laws” he “decided to return to his country to face the charges against him, recognizing the importance of his participation to ensure that the process is carried out fairly and to foster the search for truth.”
The Vatican statement confirmed that the cardinal had informed Pope Francis of these developments and the pontiff “has granted the cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself” and also expressed the Holy See’s “respect for the Australian justice system that will have to decide the merits of the questions raised.”
At the same time, it said “it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors.” Furthermore, “he has cooperated in the past with Australian authorities (for example, in his depositions before the Royal Commission); has supported the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; and as a diocesan bishop in Australia, has introduced systems and procedures both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse.”
The news, which broke after 2:30 a.m. (Rome time), did not come altogether as a surprise given earlier signals from the Victoria police, who had interviewed the cardinal in the Vatican last October and after a long and costly investigation and much deliberation took the decision to press charges against him.
But given this long time, many here in Rome wonder why the Victoria police decided to make the announcement on June 29, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which is a holiday in the Vatican. This year, most of the world’s cardinals are present, as well as much of the international media, because of the consistory on the previous day at which the pope made five new cardinals.
The news came as a major blow to the pope and Vatican, of course, and was received with sadness here. Officials I have spoken to say they consider Cardinal Pell an honest man and believe it is important that he be given a fair chance to clear his name.
One church source who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak, told America, he is concerned because of the time lag it could take to hold a trial and to sift through all the charges. A major time lag would in fact effectively mean an end to the cardinal’s career, regardless of the end result.
Cardinal Pell is the most senior Vatican official ever to be charged with sexual abuse offenses. He is currently not only a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisors and head of the Secretariat for the Economy but also a member of the congregation of bishops that proposes to the pope the names of candidates to be bishops in Australia and elsewhere.
During his absence from the Rome, the Secretariat for the Economy will continue to carry out its institutional tasks, the Vatican said, and “the secretaries will remain at their posts to carry forward the ordinary affairs of the dicastery, until otherwise provided for.”
It is worth recalling here how Pope Francis, who has a zero tolerance policy in relation to the abuse of minors by priests, looks on the cardinal’s situation. He made this known on the return flight from Poland, July 31, 2016, when he was asked what would be the right thing for Cardinal Pell to do given the accusations against him. He responded by noting that the initial reports were confusing and related to allegations from 40 years ago which the police, at first, were not even aware of. He noted that all these accusations were then presented to the justice system and remain there and said, “We cannot judge until the justice system passes judgment. It would not be good for me to pass judgment for or against Cardinal Pell, for I would then be passing judgment prematurely. Clearly doubt exists and there is a clear principle of law: in dubio pro reo (doubt favors the accused). We have to wait for the justice system to do its job and not pass judgment in the media, because this is not helpful. ‘Judgment’ by gossip, and then what? We don’t know how it will turn out. See what the justice system decides. Once it has spoken, then I will speak.”
The charging of Cardinal Pell is like lancing a boil that has festered for too long. Now this drama moves into its final act. He has personified the church in Australia for well over three decades and his fate will always be entwined with the image of that church and its future.
A source in Australia, who asked for anonymity because of the position he holds, told America after the news broke that “the charging of Cardinal Pell is like lancing a boil that has festered for too long. Now this drama moves into its final act. He has personified the church in Australia for well over three decades and his fate will always be entwined with the image of that church and its future.”
Various sources in Rome and Australia told America that the cardinal has been like a lightning rod for discontent and has been a controversial and somewhat unpopular figure in Australia for a long time. They believe that some of the accusations against him are motivated by dislike and anger with the church and that he is so identified with the church in Australia that the vitriol that existed at the moment is often vented in an almost vicarious response. These sources also agree that given the widespread and justifiable anger over the sexual abuse of children and minors in some 1,000 Catholic church institutions in Australia since the 1950s, it would be fair to say that the public want scalps, and the cardinal’s would be the biggest and most high profile one. For many people, it is the one they are after. This climate, of course, raises the crucial question as to whether he can be given a fair trial.
“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offenses,” Victoria state police deputy commissioner Shane Patton told a news conference in Melbourne on June 29. He said “There are multiple complainants relating to those charges.”
Mr. Patton clarified that “the process and the procedures that have been followed in the charging of Cardinal Pell have been the same that have been applied in a whole range of historical sex offenses whenever we investigate them.” He insisted that “there has been no change in any procedures whatsoever” and that the cardinal has been treated the same as anyone else.
At the same time, he emphasized that “none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have, obviously, been tested in any court yet” and affirmed that the cardinal “like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore it’s important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.”
The Victoria police deputy commissioner did not provide further details of the charges, and said the police would not make any further comment citing the need to preserve the integrity of the judicial process, and Mr. Patton underlined that “preserving the integrity of that process is essential to all of us, so for Victoria police it’s important that it’s allowed to go through unhindered, and it’s allowed to see natural justice is afforded to all the parties involved, including Cardinal Pell and the complainants in this matter.”
ABC News Australia reports that a magistrate will decide next week whether to release the details and nature of the charges. A hearing will take place on July 6.
June 29, 2017