OpinionThe Catholic Church and the power of the State: What Cardinal Pell’s conviction means for the future
Crux Wed 27 Feb 2019
The conviction of George Pell is a calamitous event for the Catholic Church ― not just in Australia, but globally. It is the first time a cardinal has been found guilty of sexual abuse against minors by a secular tribunal.
The guilty verdict made public on 26 February 2019 against Cardinal George Pell represents a first in the history of the Catholic Church in its dealings with the modern state: a cardinal, one of the few members of the Church with the right to vote for the pope, has been convicted of sexual abuse against minors by a secular tribunal. This is a very different case from that of Theodore McCarrick, whose defrocking was announced by the Vatican just a few days ago, on 16 February. McCarrick, who was expelled from the college of cardinals by Pope Francis in July 2018, was found guilty by a canonical trial at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, and never had to face secular justice.
The conviction of Cardinal Pell is a calamitous event for the Catholic Church, not just in Australia, but globally, and it must be placed in context.
Since late 2017, the Church has entered a new phase in its dealing with the consequences of the sexual abuse by clergy: it is an annus horribilisthat refuses to end. What inaugurated this new phase were the waves of revelations in various countries which effectively called into question the personal responsibility and decisions of the last three popes ― John Paul II and Benedict XVI with respect to McCarrick, Francis in Chile. Australia is playing a particularly important role in this new phase, beginning with the final reportof the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse in December 2017 and the response of the Australian Catholic Church (bishops and religious orders) to the recommendations of the Royal Commission in December 2018.
Few figures loom as large in this new phase ― given the central role Australia plays within it ― than Cardinal George Pell, who was chosen by Pope Francis to lead the newly created Vatican Secretariat for the Economy and whom Francis permitted (or indeed, asked) to return to Australia in June 2017 to face trial before a secular court. It is also important to remember, in this respect, the case of former Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson who was convicted by a secular court in July 2018, but then acquitted on appeal in December 2018. Pope Francis had, however, already accepted Wilson’s resignation immediately after his conviction, and after the then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia made public statements about the need for Pope Francis to “sack” Archbishop Wilson.
The cases of both Archbishop Wilson and Cardinal Pell have thrust the Church into uncharted territory: we are witnessing the way that clerical sexual abuse is redefining the relationship between Church and State, between the justice of the Church and the justice of the State. The very notion of some established separation between, or of juridically discrete spheres belonging to, Church and State is being tested to its core by the sexual abuse crisis. Quite simply, “Church and State” no longer means what it used to mean.
And both Church and State are repositioning themselves in response to this crisis. With the pontificate of Francis, there is no question that the institutional Catholic Church no longer fights against secular justice or shields alleged criminals from prosecution by the civil authorities. The Church actually welcomessecular justice, knowing now that without the intervention of public prosecutors many cases of sexual abuse in the Church would have never been addressed, investigated and punished. The Catholic Church is now totally on the defensive ― locally and globally; in Australia and in the Vatican; in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion. And it is on the defensive because of an uncovered history of the indefensible practices of covering up abusers, re-victimising victims, vilifying the media investigating the cases and shielding top clerics from justice ― sometimes by shipping them to the Vatican (beginning with the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, in 2004).
The point worth emphasising here is that the Catholic Church is now structurally, even if not explicitly, reliant on the verdicts of the secular courts to make determinations about the firing (and the hiring) of its cardinals and bishops. This is why any talk of “zero tolerance” for abusers in the Church ― in the Church’s ministries as well as among the Catholic clergy as ordained members ― becomes meaningless if it does not consider who determines if a member of the Church is a sexual abuser. The fact is that the fight against sexual abuse in the Church is, to a large extent, only as good as the rule of law in a given country or state.
This gives rise to an immensely complicated situation, because we live in an “age of anger” in which it is apparent that the highest court is now public opinion ― but public opinion which is now no longer informed exclusively by mainstream media. This new court of public opinion, where both the institutional Church and mainstream media have less influence than they may once have had, is increasingly presided over by social media. It is, frankly, impossible to understand the current wave of the clerical sexual abuse crisis without adequate consideration of the role played by social media in the psychology of collective indignation. In a social media saturated age, the old juridical dictum in dubio, pro reo(“when in doubt, for the accused”) no longer applies, no matter what the written law says ― especially when it is clergy accused of sexual abuse who are on trial.
It is, moreover, impossible to understand the significance of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis without looking to the further horizon of bilateral relations between Church and State. For if there is one globalised power that the secular nation-state today can wage war against, it’s the Catholic Church: the assertiveness of the secular courts against Catholic clergy ― an assertiveness welcomed by most Catholics, who have grown frustrated with the inaction of the Church on this issue ― could give ideas to nationalist politicians with an interest in silencing dissenting voices in the Church. This could happen especially in countries where the rule of law and the freedom of the press are weaker than they are in established democracies.
But it is also impossible to understand the significance of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis without recognising that there is no possible separation between Church and State when a secular court tries a high-profile cleric like a cardinal. The higher the ecclesiastical rank of the accused, the more likely it is that other factors ― prejudicial opinions held by the press, by jurors, by judges, police and politicians ― will influence the verdict and its reception. This is destined to split the Catholic Church at the local and global levels in new and unforeseen ways.
Cardinal Robert Bellarmin wrote four centuries ago about the legitimate influence of the Church over the State; he said that the Church wielded a potestas indirecta in temporalibus (“indirect power in secular affairs”). Now the situation is in some sense reversed: the State possesses a new kind of potestas indirecta in ecclesiasticis(“indirect power in ecclesiastical affairs”). This could have seismic consequences for the future of the institutional Church and the next generation of its leaders. Just consider the effect that the clerical abuse crisis will have on the next papal conclave. It is no longer a question of whether, but simply of what and to what extent
Massimo Faggioli is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University and Conjoint Professor at BBI―The Australian Institute of Theological Education in Sydney. He is the author of Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century, A Council for the Global Church, Receiving Vatican II in History and John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy.
THE VATICAN IS A ROGUE STATE AND SHOULD BE EXCLUDED BY THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY.
Because of the widespread sexual criminality and total corruption of the RC church, Italy should now annul the1929 concordat with the Vatican and take the territory back into Italy where the Vatican criminals can be prosecuted under Italian, European and International law.
There are good grounds, I believe, to arraign Pope Francis, certain cardinals, bishops and curia members at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
They have committed crimes against humanity and children.
I congratulate Australia for leading the charge against RC criminality.
Pell sould only be the first in a long line of clerical criminals to be brought before the criminal courts.
Countries should expel papal nuncios and papal representatives.
The vatican observer to the UN should be returned to Rome.
Papal visits should not be allowed by national governments.
The Vatican and the RC church sould have the status of golf or tennis clubs.
This medieval kingdom should be outlawed and ostracised.
In another way they are as dangeroys as Isis.
They are spiritual terrorists and child torturers.