In the Roman Catholic Church, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, generally known as ‘confession’, is a crucial component of faith. According to scripture, following the process of penance, adherents are thereafter absolved of their sin by a priest, who, despite his status of mere mortal, is empowered by the main man upstairs, Big G himself, to duly grant absolution. A major aspect of this procedure is called the ‘seal of the confession’ which guarantees confidentiality, boldly stating that priests must not reveal what they have learned during confession to anyone, even under the threat of their own death or that of others.
So far, so medieval. But as Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s Catholic Church number one ticket holder continues his journey through the courts on what are still, mysteriously, undisclosed charges ‘of a sexual assault nature’, it seems the confidential nature of the confessional box has now been extended to the criminal dock.
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First things first: Cardinal Pell, who back in the days when he was a humble parish priest in regional Victoria, went by the affectionate sobriquet, ‘Big George’, is of course entitled to the presumption of innocence. What’s more, he protests that innocence with the type of vehemence and certainty you’d expect from a man who has so successfully ascended the greasy – make that incense soaked – pole of the Catholic hierarchy.
It’s in no way prejudicial to say however, that Pell’s public pronouncements in the light of the numerous revelations of institutional sexual abuse within the church in Australia, haven’t always shown him in the best light. Humility, it seems, as far as Big George is concerned, is a type of chickpea dip. Pell’s personae, rightly or wrongly, is that of an arrogant, egotistical man who has consistently claimed no prior knowledge of the decades long scandal, hard to believe since other more communicative padres have admitted that sexual abuse within the Church was something of an open secret.
Is it realistic, to suggest that Pell, a consummate, ultra-shrewd political operator who, prior to this local difficulty sat at the right hand of Pope Francis himself, knew nothing, saw nothing? His reluctant and subsequently disastrous appearance at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse in May 2016 certainly did him no favours, giving the firm impression that he thought the whole thing was something of a storm in a chalice and that he, The Cardinal – had other, far more important, spiritual concerns to worry about.
In terms of public relations, that was bad enough. Then, following many years of speculation, innuendo and rumour, it became far worse.
In June this year, Victoria Police, who in the past haven’t exactly been zealous in responding to historical sexual assault allegations, announced that they had filed charges against the Cardinal. Undisclosed charges, as they still remain, but with more than enough clues to inform the public that Big George hadn’t been pinched for drunk driving.
Taken by surprise, the mainstream media worked itself into a frenzy in attempting to pinpoint the charges, disclosing enough information and opinion to lead to more than one legal expert expressing serious uncertainty that Pell could possibly receive a fair trail comprising of the required, ‘ei incumbit probatio qui dicit non qui negat‘, otherwise known as the burden of proof.
And so, in a retrospective effort to shut out the light, a blanket was thrown over the matter. The charges – whatever they are – remain unknown, no details, no times, dates or alleged victims have been revealed and, as we learned yesterday in Melbourne Magistrates Court, Cardinal Pell’s impending committal appearance, the process whereby a magistrate decides whether there is, in fact, enough evidence to continue with a trial, will be heard behind closed doors.
This, in itself, is not entirely unheard of and legal insiders have surmised that it’s a strong indication that the Cardinal’s legal team – the best the vast financial resources of the Catholic Church can buy – will contest the allegations to the last adjective. A huge slice of irony, considering the sanctity of confession and the assumption that admission is a matter between man and God’s representative – although in this case, one in sitting in a heightened bench rather than behind a confessional screen.
Cardinal Pell is not in the best of health, and a sympathetic viewpoint would suggest the stress of an impending trial isn’t going to make him feel any better, but already a somewhat cynical analysis might imply that a delay in proceedings already painfully slow, may result in an unsatisfactory stalemate, precipitated by infirmity, illness or, perhaps, something far more terminal.
Big George, as is his wont, has regularly insisted that he’ll fight the allegations ‘until his last breath’. And quite possibly, as some sceptics are openly suggesting, that might well be his adviser’s preferred strategy.
This trial will run and run. How long Big George can keep pace with it, however, remains to be seen.