Amidst the mounting deaths and darkness caused by the corona virus pandemic comes a shaft of light from Australia on the final clearing of the unjustly persecuted Cardinal George Pell. After spending 404 days in jail for a crime he did not commit, Pell was unanimously cleared by the Australian High Court, after it failed to see how he could have committed the crime, which apparently did not even exist. I have not read the verdict, but the TV reports seem authoritative enough.

Some Catholic commentators have described Pell’s conviction as the greatest miscarriage of justice in Australia.  He was one of the Vatican’s most important officials, tasked by Pope Francis to look into the state of Vatican’s finances, when he was convicted of sexually abusing two young male choristers at St. Patrick’s cathedral in east Melbourne in 1997.

As archbishop, he initiated the “Melbourne Response” which sought to investigate all complaints of child sexual abuse in his archdiocese. This  was said to be the first protocol of its kind in the world. But on March 13, 2019, he was sentenced to six-years imprisonment for the alleged crime he was supposed to have committed years ago.

Trial observer John Macaulay told Raymond Arroyo on EWTN that Pell’s conviction had taken  “20 years in the making.” George Weigel, Jr., Pope St. John Paul II’s biographer and Pell’s personal friend for more than 50 years, called it “a travesty of justice; the triumph of lifestyle libertinism and the dictatorship of relativism.” It’s the Australian justice system, not Pell, that’s on trial here,  he said.

Weigel is an honest intellectual and a dear friend, and I trust his judgment. I have also met Pell a few times.  One of the few princes of the Church with a doctorate from Oxford, Pell wrote books, columns and was a renowned public speaker. In 1998, he was named delegate to the Australian Constitution Convention;  awarded the Centenary Medal by the Australian government in 2003; the Companion of the Order of Australia in 2005; member of the Pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, 2003 – 2018; first prefect of the Vatican Secretariat of the Economy, 2004- 2019.

At 190 centimeters,  Pell is one of the Church’s tallest figures. At the 2006 World Meeting of Families in Valencia, Spain, when I last saw him with Pope Benedict XVI,  his wicker chair gave way to his immensity, and the media had great fun punning, “Pell fell.” But he had a greater fall in Melbourne when Chief Judge Peter Kidd pronounced his sentence after a jury voted on Dec. 12, 2018 to convict him without any credible evidence of sexual abuse.

This came  a month after the  sex abuse summit in Rome which dealt with clerical sex abuses mostly in the United States, where a grand jury in Pennsylvania had detailed over 1,000 victims of  sex abuse by around 300 priests in six of the state’s dioceses since the 1960’s. The highest offender named there was Theodore McCarrick, Cardinal-Archbishop of  Washington, D.C., who was accused of abusing adult male seminarians and minors over several decades, and was removed from public ministry in June 2018.

On Aug. 25, 2018, the former apostolic nuncio to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, in an 11-page treport, accused high Church officials, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and the Pope himself, of having known of McCarrick’s transgressions, but failed to act on them. McCarrick finally resigned from the College of Cardinals, and was ordered  by Pope Francis to live a life of prayer and penance until a canonical trial could be held. In this trial in February 2019, he was found guilty of sexual crimes and abuse of power and dismissed from the clergy—the first cardinal to be so laicized or defrocked.

Many had expected criminal prosecution to follow. But the center of sexual scandal shifted from the US to Australia, and from McCarrick to Pell.  The Australian police reportedly started looking for crimes committed by Pell before any complaint was lodged against him, and he was finally accused by two anonymized alleged victims of what some 20 witnesses considered a highly improbable crime. One of his accusers died in 2014. He was convicted solely on the basis of the allegations of one individual, without any corroborating evidence—no DNA, or  independent third-party evidence.

Pell had  two jury trials. The first jury of 14 members failed to arrive at a verdict after 10 jurors voted to acquit and two others voted to convict. Then the reconstituted jury of 12 members voted to convict.

Judge Kidd told Pell:  “I am satisfied by the evidence before me that you are someone who has been in the last 22 years since the offending, of otherwise good character. I am satisfied that you  effectively do not present a risk of reoffending; the years of no offending prove you have effectively reformed.” The judge also admitted that a “witch hunt and lynch-crowd behavior” had attended the trial, but without any evidence that the highly improbable crime did in fact take place, he said, “I assume the offending actually occurred” and promptly sentenced Pell.

It was this judgment that the High Court finally reversed.

Preview image: Screen grab from the Catholic News Agency (Cardinal George Pell’s June 2017 press conference)