Battle for interpretive authority

Battle for interpretive authority

Cardinal George Pell © Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

The guilty verdict against Cardinal George Pell for sexual abuse has hit Australia to the core. His opponents claim to have known all along. Supporters of the cleric speak of a lapse in judgment.

"I thank you for coming to Mass today," said Father Andrew Hayes in Ararat, Australia, at the beginning of his homily Sunday. 'It would have been understandable if you had stayed at home'. I, too, feel ashamed and affected." Guilty or not, Cardinal George Pell "stands before us as a representative of the Catholic Church that has failed you and me in such an appalling way," Hayes continued.

The priest's parish is in the Ballarat diocese, where Pell's career began. More trouble looms for the once-powerful churchman from his hometown of Ballarat after his guilty verdict on abuse charges. A 50-year-old man is seeking a civil lawsuit against Pell for alleged sexual misconduct at a swimming pool in the 1970s.

Supporters struggle

Conservative ex-prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard gave their friend Pell top marks for character during the controversial Melbourne jury trial. The Murdoch media empire's star columnists also continue to stand by the cleric, saying the sentence is unjust.

"Pell was their hero and culture warrior against leftist ideas and green neo-paganism," says Australian theology professor Neil Ormerod.

He had particularly opposed Pope Francis' environmental encyclical "Laudato si" with his denial of man-made climate change. Instead, Pell has allied himself with the political agenda of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the coal, gas and oil industries that are important to Australia, Ormerod said.

Vincent Long Van Nguyen, bishop of Parramatta, wrote in a pastoral letter Sunday, "Even among Catholics, there is a sense of shame and anger because of the deceit and hypocrisy that the abuse crimes represent. This goes far beyond the case of Cardinal Pell." Long, who fled Vietnam as a young man, has himself been sexually assaulted by a priest in Australia.

Some bishops react cautiously

Many fellow bishops reacted with more cautious words to the controversial guilty verdict against Pell in Australian media.

Theologian Ormerod criticizes bishops for having months to prepare strategy. "Now it looks like they are surprised." This was "a poor pastoral response" for those Catholics who are now distraught and angry, he said. Pell had already been sentenced in December 2018. However, the total trial reporting ban imposed on the media was only lifted last week.

Australia elects a new parliament in May at the latest, and the first-instance conviction of the conservative "culture warrior" Pell will not remain without consequences in the election campaign. "The refusal of some Murdoch media columnists to accept the jury's unanimous verdict has shocked many people," says David McKnight, a media expert at the University of New South Wales. This could have a negative effect on the conservative "Liberal Party", which is currently dragging its feet on the election campaign in a minority government.

On 13. March, Melbourne court to announce sentence for Pell. This will probably be the last appearance of Pell's lawyer Robert Richter in this matter. Out of "anger" over the "perverse verdict," the star lawyer has resigned from his position, but plans to advise the Cardinal's defense team in the appeal process. In Ararat, meanwhile, Rev. Hayes is calling on his congregation to be actively involved in the 2020 plenary council of the Australian church: "You have every support from me for demands for change."

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Christina Cherry
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