Pell’s day in court

This is not a piece about guilt. A court will decide that. This is a piece about a church that is finally being forced to address accusations of child abuse where they should always have been addressed: under the law.

The details of the charges laid against George Pell are not yet known. Victoria Police’s deputy commissioner, Shane Patton, confirmed they were multiple and that they related to historical sexual abuse allegations. “There are,” he said, “multiple complainants relating to those charges.”

We know about some of the accusations that have been made against Pell in the past. The church investigated them. Its reports cleared the cardinal. He maintained his innocence.

After he was charged by police on Thursday, Pell made a statement that he intended to return to Australia. He was consulting a doctor, having earlier insisted he was too sick to travel.

“There has been relentless character assassination for months … I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I am innocent of these charges. They are false,” he said.

“I’ve kept Pope Francis, the Holy Father, regularly informed during these long months and have spoken to him on a number of occasions in the last week, most recently a day or so ago ... All along I have been completely consistent and clear in my total rejection of these allegations. News of these charges strengthens my resolve and court proceedings now offer an opportunity to clear my name and return back to work.”

Pell is the third-highest-ranking Catholic in the Vatican. He is the most senior Vatican official to have been charged with child sexual offences. The events of this week will deeply unsettle the church.

Child abuse has remade the church in a way once unimaginable. It has taken the moral authority of its hierarchy, laid bare its hypocrisies. It has emptied pews and bankrupted parishes.

The church, and we do not here speak of Cardinal Pell, has presided over this collapse for one reason above all others: it has sought to put itself outside the law. In civil matters, it has organised ludicrous corporate structures to protect itself from litigation. It has built parallel processes to keep itself from accountability. Where it has used the law, it has used it to harass victims, even after determining the veracity of their abuse.

It is in this context that George Pell has been charged. He has become and is likely to remain a symbol of the church’s relationship with the law.

In announcing the charges, Patton said: “The process and procedures that are being followed in the charging of Cardinal Pell have been the same that have been applied in a whole range of historical sex offences, whenever we investigate them ... Cardinal Pell has been treated the same as anyone else in this investigation.”

This last point is an important one. It is not just about Pell, it is about all priests. It could have saved the church its collapse.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2017 as "Pell’s day in court".

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