08.04.21. Frank Brennan: “Pope John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel, writing the introduction to Cardinal George Pell’s Prison Journal, describes me as one who “had previously held no brief for Cardinal Pell (and) a severe critic”. I plead guilty. Nevertheless, having attended parts of his two criminal trials and having studied all the publicly available transcript, I am convinced of Pell’s innocence of the criminal charges he faced. I am convinced the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse failed to accord him natural justice in its pursuit of a necessary big scalp for media delectation.”
Source: Frank Brennan, for News Corp
I’m a critic but George Pell really was treated unjustly
Australia’s Catholic Church continues to deal with the legacy of Pell, who like many other Australians before 1996 — when he set up the Melbourne Response protocol to deal with abuse allegations — had little sensitivity to the pervasive reality of child sexual abuse in institutions and did little to ensure abuse could not occur within such settings.
No doubt the legacy would be easier to bear if Pell had worked closely with all his fellow bishops when designing the first protocols. The public ignominy would have been less if he had returned to Australia to front the royal commission rather than remaining in Rome for his third appearance by video link at night-time. People thought he had something to hide.
He would have had a better chance of the jury acquitting him in the first instance if he had gone into the witness box, subjecting himself to strenuous cross-examination, as had the complainant. Australians now have a low tolerance of bishops employing tough defence counsel to cross-examine complainants while the bishops sit mute.
Pell paid for these mistakes with 404 days of wrongful imprisonment, much of it in solitary confinement. The time has come to attest that Pell worked tirelessly and to the best of his ability from 1996 to put right the dreadful consequences of institutional child sexual abuse. Pell faced charges that should never have been brought, a prosecution that was malicious, a Victorian appeal court that got it very wrong, and a media campaign that was relentlessly prejudiced.
Attitudes have changed about all manner of things since 1996. There have been six prime ministers since Pell was first made an archbishop. In our Westminster-style parliaments, elected leaders from both sides of politics turn over with sufficient rapidity that they are not held personally responsible for institutional failures of previous generations.
A bishop embodies functions of both politician and civil servant. Bishops such as Pell who preside over dioceses for decades come to embody the institution, including its failures. Pell has been emblematic of the Australian Catholic Church for decades.
Catholics continue to be identified as pro-Pell or anti-Pell. Though convinced of his innocence, I still don’t subscribe to his culture wars. I’ve come to enjoy his company and admire his resolute courage. We will continue to disagree over matters such as the theological possibility of papal approval of women’s ordination and the jurisprudential justification for civil laws recognising the unions of same-sex couples and describing them as marriage.
I do hope for the good of the Australian church that the intrigue about Vatican financial scandals will abate, and Pell’s influence over episcopal appointments will wane. On June 8, Pell turns 80. He will no longer be eligible to vote at conclave. He will stand for the rest of his days as a distinctive Australian crossbreed of sacrificial lamb and scapegoat wearing a tall poppy fleece.
This is an edited extract from Frank Brennan’s Observations on the Pell Proceedings (Connor Court), released this week to mark the first anniversary of George Pell’s acquittal by the High Court of Australia.