Since before his appearance last year at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and after, the George Pell case has been discussed passionately in Australia and widely around the world. Now the Victoria Police has added another dimension. A big one. It is a rare, if not unprecedented, event for a cardinal to be charged with a criminal offence. And in the past 24 hours, we have seen the Pell case jump suddenly and dramatically to a whole new level of clarity.
From Victoria Police:
“Today Victoria Police have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offences. Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic official has been summonsed to appear in court on July 18th to face multiple charges of historic sex offences.”
From Cardinal Pell:
“I’m looking forward, finally, to having my day in court. I’m innocent of these charges. They are false. News of these charges strengthens my resolve … and court proceedings now offer me an opportunity to clear my name and then return here back to Rome to work.”
From Pope Francis:
“The Holy See has learned with regret the news of charges filed against Cardinal George Pell. … The Holy Father has granted the Cardinal a leave of absence so he can defend himself. … The Holy See expresses its respect for the Australian justice system, which will have to decide the merits of the questions raised.”
Victoria Police have added: “We won’t be making any further comment. The matter will now proceed through the courts. Thank you.”
Pell has added (about his return to Australia): “I’ve spoken to my lawyers about when this will be necessary. And I’ve spoken to my doctors about the best way to achieve this.”
Pope Francis has added: “During the prefect’s absence, the secretariat for the economy will continue to carry out its institutional tasks. … The Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pell’s honesty during his three years of work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration and, in particular, for his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals, the C-9.”
All Australians and all the world, urbi et orbi, will be watching the development of the Pell case as a main event. It is on the global agenda. Much is at stake for the interests of a broad spectrum of so many different parties.
Recently, some circulating questions about the cardinal have been:
- What do the charges mean for Pell, his place in the Vatican?
- What should Pope Francis do with him? Can he be extradited? Will the Vatican protect him or should the Pope force him to come back and face the music?
- What does it mean for Pell’s very powerful position that now the police are involved?
Already, at a pace, some of these questions have been answered. The speculation about possible Vatican protection of the cardinal was justified given that protection was once given to Archbishop Marcinkus during a Vatican Bank/Bank of Italy scandal in the 1980s and, more recently, the Vatican has become a haven for Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston following the child abuse revelations in his diocese. Differently, however, it is important to note that neither of these men had charges laid against them by the police in Italy or America.
Also, as the Vatican is a sovereign state, there have been questions about extradition treaties and whether the Pope should force his cardinal/Prefect of the Economy to return to Australia to “face the music”.
Already, in the first 24 hours, since the laying of the charges, these questions have been answered by both the cardinal and the Pope.
The question is no longer if but when will Pell return to Australia. The first court date is Tuesday, July 18, in less than three weeks. It may be on that first court date that Pell will be represented by his counsel, Robert Richter QC, who is a well-known critic of human rights violations and a formidable advocate for the rule of law and so often represents clients who are unpopular in public opinion.
Regarding Pell’s actual return date it’s hard to predict right now because he is still consulting his lawyers and doctors on the when and how. Will he fly back in three weeks or will it be more like three months if he sails? This is still a question.
The other questions are about his job in the Vatican, his place in the Church and his reputation in the world.
I’ve written before that there are really two Pells: the one in Australia and the one in Rome. The former is widely disliked and the latter is widely liked. In Australia he is often seen as aloof, tough and evasive. In Rome, he is a likeable, footballer-Aussie. Hard-working and straight-talking in a very difficult job as the Vatican’s treasurer and cleaning up the Vatican bank. As an observer, it’s always been difficult to reconcile the two.
I’ve also written that the founder of his Church has spoken very clearly and harshly about child abuse recommending punishment as severe as being, “drowned in the deep of the sea with a great millstone tied round his neck” (Matt 18:6).
So, this is a big deal for Pell’s reputation in Rome and the outcome will seal his fate. If he gets anything less than a clean slate from the Victorian court he will be persona non grata in Rome.