On 19 August 1692 Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, George Burroughs, John Willard, and John Proctor were hanged at Salem in the-then colony of Massachusetts. Their purported crime had been the practice of witchcraft. The five were among an eventual 20 persons executed for consorting with the Devil, although an additional five, two of whom were infant children, died in prison. The name Salem has, of course, become synonymous with mass hysteria, lynch mobs, blind prejudice and the personal agendas of those who stand to benefit from convictions. Under the Puritan practice of justice of that time, the blindly self-righteous, the dishonest and the unctuous were protected – and encouraged – by the thin veneer of official respectability, approval from the authorities and the court of public hysteria.
Salem is particularly instructive when we consider the current outrageous and sustained campaign to manipulate public opinion which is being exercised against Cardinal George Pell with the (all-too-often, apparently) full and uncritical collaboration of most of the media in Australia whose own record in relation to him over years and decades is shameful. What is currently happening is really quite simple: a man who has stood for the faith of the Church in the modern era with outstanding courage is being targeted for it in any way possible to bring him down. And what nastier way might we think of than to smear him in relation to that most repulsive of crimes: the abuse of the young?
Perhaps Aboriginal rights campaigner and former Senator Noel Pearson, who is not a Catholic, said it best in the last week: in a passionate plea for fair treatment of Cardinal Pell he warned of “journalistic vigilantism” in the form of allegations that risk undermining any possibility of a fair trial. Referring to the great architect of the blind terror of the French Revolution, Mr Pearson said he was ashamed “more of us” had not spoken and “lifted our heads above the parapets to face the certitude of these latter day Robespierres.” But Mr Pearson was not quite alone. When almost no Australian journalist was capable of spotting what was really happening, the Law Institute of Victoria also made its own concerns about the issue public, stating that publicity was clearly jeopardising Cardinal Pell’s chances of a fair trial – if, that is, he is ever actually charged.
There is always something repugnant about an obviously contrived campaign to persecute an innocent man. There is something even more repulsive when the success of such a low and dishonest effort depends on turning a hypothetical possibility (applicable to any public figure) that stretches credulity beyond the limits into a widely held conviction that this particular person is some kind of monster. This is what is happening. Mr Pearson was correct: more of us should have the courage to speak out about what we really see happening around us in this regard.
In the meantime, we ask ourselves, “What is it that we, the ordinary man and woman, can do?” Keeping in mind and maintaining the fundamental principles of justice, we should not worry that, in Australia, the Salem approach appears – for now – to be fashionable again. The best thing we can do is pray for a deeply good and courageous man, George Cardinal Pell – and for those who have set their hearts on destroying him because of his fidelity to the Gospel. We are Christians. We must love our enemies even when they seek to destroy us.