Archbishop Pell: A Case Study in False Accusations

Australian Situation Reveals Problems with Procedures

SYDNEY, Australia, OCT. 19, 2002 ( Vatican fears about the inadequacy of the U.S. bishops’ norms on dealing with clerical sex-abuse allegations are not without foundation — judging by the experience of Sydney’s Archbishop George Pell.

The archbishop has been cleared by the independent inquiry set up to investigate an accusation of sexual abuse against him. Still unanswered, however, are questions about how the media cover this and similar cases, and how Church procedures deal with the abuse accusations.

Archbishop Pell’s trial-by-the-media is not new. From the moment he arrived here from the archbishopric of Melbourne, some news media made clear their hostility. Media scrutiny sharpened last June when the prelate was accused of hushing up sexual abuses while he was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne.

The accusations surfaced in the course of a television interview. The conduct of the TV program was analyzed in the October issue of Quadrant magazine, and the findings were not flattering. For openers, the show’s producers lied to Archbishop Pell about the content of the TV interview; they told him it would deal only with the abuse crisis in the United States.

The Quadrant article details the tenuous nature of the accusations made by the television program, and the lack of real evidence against the archbishop. The program, nevertheless, sparked off a media frenzy. In the following weeks, numerous attempts were made to link Sydney’s archbishop to improper handling of abuse cases. This included the discovery of a bishop who had imposed a secrecy clause in a settlement — a bishop who was in no way under Pell’s authority. Yet, the media presented that as clear proof of the archbishop’s guilt.

In fact, only three months into his tenure as Melbourne archbishop, Pell introduced tough changes into Church policy regarding abuse allegations, Quadrant observed. Clergy were to be dealt with much more seriously, and compensation for the victims was improved.

In the latest case, where Archbishop Pell himself was accused of abuse, the amount of negative media coverage was enormous. After he was cleared by the inquiry, the Sydney Morning Herald noted Oct. 15: “The allegations of sex abuse against Pell received extensive overseas coverage. It is doubtful the clearing of his name on these charges will receive the same prominence.”

The media published graphic accounts of the sexual abuse allegedly committed by Pell, while at the same time protecting the anonymity of his accuser. The coverage continued, despite a total lack of corroborating evidence.

A monthly magazine on religious affairs, AD2000, in an article published before the archbishop was vindicated, commented on the increasing tendency of the media to “aggressively impugn the good reputation of a distinguished person on the basis of a mere assertion.”

Even the president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O’Gorman — no ally of Archbishop Pell — drew attention to the “hysteria” surrounding allegations of sexual abuse of minors. “So far have we gone down the road of trashing a presumption of innocence that a law change is called for to restore, and restore fundamentally, the principles of presumption of innocence,” O’Gorman declared.

Church procedures questioned

Doubts about how accusations were handled arose when the Herald Sun on Oct. 6 published details about the accuser. Pell’s alleged victim was, it turned out, a career criminal. He had been convicted of drug dealing and involved in illegal gambling, tax evasion and organized crime in a labor union. A commission probing the corrupt union even devoted a whole chapter of its report to this man’s activities. As the inquiry report noted: “The complainant has been before the court on many occasions, resulting in 39 convictions from about 20 court appearances.”

Subsequently, doubts were also raised over how the archbishop had been treated by the Church guidelines covering sexual abuse accusations. Archbishop Pell said that he “had been kept in the dark by the Church for some two months, ignorant of the serious allegations made against him,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported Oct. 15.

This took place while the Church body set up to handle abuse matters, Towards Healing, entered into correspondence with the accuser. “On this point,” the newspaper observed, “Towards Healing ignored its own protocol, which demands that accused clergy be told ‘as soon as possible’ once a complaint has been made.”

Tess Livingstone, whose biography of Pell is about to be published, reported in an Oct. 15 article for the Courier-Mail on comments made by the archbishop after he was cleared. Asked if changes should be made to a system that allows people to remain anonymous after making unsubstantiated allegations against public figures, Archbishop Pell said: “I think that’s one of the factors we should be looking at.”

Another problem relates to the matter of legal costs. The newspaper The Australian noted Oct. 16 that Archbishop Pell was obliged by Church norms to pay his own legal costs. But the Church paid the costs for his accuser.

“Zero tolerance” under the microscope

Concerns over procedures in abuse cases are also rising in the United States. The Washington Post reported Oct. 13 that a financial analyst, Joe Maher, has quit his job and founded a nonprofit group, Opus Bono Sacerdotii (Work for the Good of the Priesthood), to help pay the legal expenses of Catholic clergy accused of sex crimes.

The newspaper also quoted Crisis magazine editor Deal Hudson as saying that Catholics in parishes are upset over the way zero tolerance has been implemented, with the sudden removal this year of more than 300 priests, often on allegations that are decades old.

And in New York, about 150 current and former priests met this month to form Voice of the Ordained. The group is dedicated to upholding the rights of accused priests to due process under civil and canon law.

A case study on how zero tolerance can go wrong was published by the National Catholic Register in its Oct. 6-12 issue. Monsignor Michael Smith Foster has been on administrative leave from the Archdiocese of Boston for more than a month. He has been suspended, in spite of the fact that the accusations have been dismissed by civil courts “with prejudice” — meaning they cannot be filed again. And the Boston Globe, not noted for favoritism toward the Church, has run exposés portraying the priest’s accuser as a pathological liar.

Another example, published by the Register in its Aug. 25-31 issue, is that of Father Francis Perry, of the Diocese of Raleigh, in North Carolina. Father Perry admitted that 41 years ago, when he was 16, he “acted inappropriately” in the presence of a 4-year-old, a case of indecent exposure. The incident occurred 29 years before Perry, raised as an Episcopalian, converted to the Catholic faith and 37 years before the former psychologist was ordained a priest in 1998.

Father Perry has now been removed from his parish and suspended from all public duties as a priest. According to the Register, parishioners at the two churches where Father Perry served as pastor were outraged.

It’s clear that victims of sexual abuse were not given justice in past years. Now, the pendulum of unfairness seems to have swung toward the accused.

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