One persistent question that has been asked since the failure of Cardinal George Pell’s appeal last Wednesday has been: Why isn’t the Vatican acting to force him from the College of Cardinals and expel him from the priesthood? They moved with amazing speed in the case of Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC, after he was accused of sexual abuse of minors. Why isn’t the same speedy process happening with Pell?
The first reason is obvious: Pell has every right to approach the High Court of Australia. But, as legal experts have pointed out, the bar for getting a hearing is extremely high. The reality is that special leave to appeal is only granted in those cases where a question of law of public importance arises, or where the interests of the administration of justice require consideration by the High Court. The High Court is not another higher court of appeal.
Clearly the Vatican knows that Pell can approach the High Court, but I suspect it under-estimates just how high the bar is to get a hearing. Vatican decision-makers probably think it is just another higher appeal court. This is implied in the statement of Matteo Bruni from the Vatican Press Office when he says: “As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.” So, understandably, the Vatican is unwilling to act until this final hurdle is cleared. In doing so they would be acting just like the Governor General when he said he’d wait to see if leave were granted before making a decision regarding Pell’s Order of Australia.
The Theodore McCarrick case is different to that of Pell. The McCarrick accusations didn’t begin in the civil courts, but in the ecclesiastical system. In late-June 2018 the Archdiocese of New York announced that its investigation had found “credible and substantiated” allegations that McCarrick had committed sexual abuse of a teenager. Another victim came forward the following month. It was also revealed that the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey had previously reached out-of-court settlements with several adult seminarians who had been sexually abused by McCarrick.
The Vatican made a quick decision because it had all the evidence from the church investigations. McCarrick was removed from public ministry in June 2018, he resigned as a cardinal the following month, and in February 2019 he was removed from the clerical state, meaning he could no longer act as a priest.
However, in Pell’s case the Vatican is entirely reliant on the Victorian civil court process; it can’t even read the evidence of Pell’s accuser, because that evidence was taken in camera to protect the victim’s identity. Sure, we know that our Australian court system is reliable, just and open and is ranked ninth best in the world by the World Justice Project, ahead of the US at eleventh and just pipped by Canada and the UK. But many in the Vatican are sympathetic to Pell and think that he is innocent and being persecuted by an anti-Catholic legal system.
The key issue for the Vatican is that it has virtually no experience in the last 200 years in sacking cardinals, let alone stripping them of the priesthood. Only one cardinal was forced to resign in the 20th century, the French Jesuit and theologian, Louis Billot. A supporter of the French fascist movement, L’Action française, he was forced to resign from the College of Cardinals by Pope Pius XI in 1927, but remained a priest in good standing.
There’s no doubt that Hans Hermann Groër,whom John Paul II appointed archbishop of Vienna against the advice of everyone, including Cardinal Franz König who was primarily responsible for Wojtyla’s own election to the papacy, should have been expelled from the College of Cardinals and stripped of the priesthood as a repeat sexual abuser of under-age seminarians. But he got away with resignation as archbishop and retirement to a life of prayer. No civil charges were laid against him because of an Austrian statute of limitations. In contrast Cardinal Keith O’Brien had the decency to resign in 2013 as archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and retire entirely from active ministry after media revelations about his adult relationships with seminarians and priests.
What is significant is that none of these men were charged by police. Except for O’Brien, all arose from internal church investigations. This is why the Pell case challenges the Vatican in an entirely different way; rather than with the church, it all began with the Victorian police and criminal charges. This is a whole new scenario for Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican department that handles such cases.
And the simple truth is that they don’t know what to do because they’ve never faced this situation before. There is a sense in which they’re playing for time, hoping that a solution might emerge from Australia, like Pell being found innocent by the High Court. As Bruni says: “The CDF is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to [the CDF] taking up the case.” However, as the McCarrick case shows, if Pope Francis becomes convinced of Pell’s guilt, he will act decisively. So, while Australians are understandably impatient with all of this, the Vatican will eventually be forced to act when Pell runs out of appeal options. The High Court is his last chance and while legal opinion is divided, the experts to whom I’ve spoken feel that it is unlikely he will get leave to appeal.
Pope Francis and the Vatican need to know that Australian Catholics have lost patience. We need a decision sooner rather than later. We need to be assured that the Pell era is finally over.
Paul Collins is a Catholic commentator and church historian.