A vacant chair
At the final Annals lunch held on 29 November 2019 at the monastery of Sacred Heart in Kensington, Sydney , there was a vacant chair for Cardinal Pell.
Right next to this, was another vacant chair for the recently deceased Father Paul Stenhouse, who had ceaselessly called for moral and financial support for the Cardinal at every opportunity. It was not hard to imagine Fr Stenhouse doing the equivalent of an Irish jig way in heaven and, if living on earth, immediately writing up an article on the Cardinal’s vindication by the High Court for the next edition of Annals.
Yet we cannot forget the ordeal of the Cardinal in its true aspect of a Via Crucis which will become more deeply understood as time goes on.
A case that was beyond weak
It is not just that the Cardinal was falsely accused. As George Weigel put it so well, “the Crown prosecutors produced no evidence that the alleged crimes had ever been committed” while the evidence that was produced was inconsistent and flawed, beyond what could be reasonably expected with memory problems over time.
There were no witnesses to corroborate the charges and there were plenty of witnesses to swear he was with them at the very time he was supposed to have committed the alleged crime.
It is all so more than the court case, the High Court Appeal and final release. It is rather that we could see Isaiah’s depiction of the Suffering Servant enacted before us and felt helpless as the Cardinal was handcuffed, taken to jail, silent in the courts while people maligned him in the most vile way.
The lonely journey of the falsely accused
We knew Cardinal Pell was the one who had confronted the issue of sexual abuse in the church in instituting new protocols to deal with it, and yet he was the one accused of such abominable abuse himself. The story of a court judgement from 2,000 years ago was reflected in the lonely journey of vilification, condemnation and destruction of a reputation.
For if, as the martyrs have done, a follower of Christ dies for the faith, that is one thing, but this was an attempted destruction of a person in his totality. The Cardinal was condemned of what is considered the most heinous crime in the world – the sexual abuse of children – and from this accusation there is hardly any recovery of reputation – only a dark legacy.
If he had died in prison, Cardinal Pell who gave his life to God as a priest, who loyally followed the church’s teachings, would have been forever listed as a child abuser, drawing a universal legacy of condemnation. Future Catholics may have wondered if it were true, those of other faiths would have looked askance at such a conviction.
The torture chamber of an accusation
In my experience as a psychologist, those who are innocent and yet accused of sexual abuse endure a unique chamber of tortures as friends, colleagues and the public distance themselves from them and mostly reject them.
Even when acquitted, it can take years for recovery from such trauma that has affected the deepest parts of the mind and soul. For The former more predictable world is gone and the memory is filled with, as the poet Rilke put it, “purely untellable things”. For Catholics of course, this road to recovery is grounded by recourse to the spiritual realm and unending graces given by our merciful God.
Few arrive at such a place
After Cardinal Pell’s release, we are left pondering the dark roads he walked and the evil which surrounded him. He has come from a place of suffering few go to, giving witness to a kind of inconceivable spiritual endurance that Christians ponder in Christ, and ponder in those who imitate Him.
We see a magnanimous soul which forgives the accuser, as the Cardinal did, which offers sufferings for the victims of abuse, and which does not trumpet any victory but quietly resumes the role of spiritual leader and loving friend.
Welcome back Cardinal Pell. You gave a rare example of how to endure the unendurable and how to cling to unswerving trust in God, and how to face any dark times which lie ahead of all of us.