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Rape Charges Against Vatican’s Pell Raises Many Questions

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You can run from the law and you can hide — if you’re a senior Vatican official.

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s #3 man, has been ordered to appear in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in Australia on July 18 and face charges officially labeled, “historical sexual assault offences.” Pell is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in connection with the rape of children. The police have not specified precisely what Pell is charged with.

Public domain photo of Pell by Gavin Scott, courtesy of Wikicommons
Public domain photo of Pell by Gavin Scott, courtesy of Wikicommons

The Pell investigation and trial present a microcosm of two broader legal issues that have been at play in the worldwide child-rape scandal for decades. The first is the Vatican’s use of diplomatic status to protect predators and block investigations. The second is the general unexplained and inexcusable submission of secular justice to the Vatican’s version.

The Vatican abuses its diplomatic status to protect sexual assailants and block investigations.

At the outset, it bears repeating that Pope Francis is a moral hypocrite. During his tenure, the p.r. spin for the Catholic Church has improved dramatically, but nothing in the Catholic hierarchy has really changed. Yes, he says nice things from time to time and he’s spot on with climate change. But even though he’s vowed “zero tolerance” for abusers, he is still allowing children to be raped. That inescapable fact has to be paramount to any sentient human being. The pope has the power to stop the rape and torture of children. Turn the assailants and their protectors over to the police and use the vast wealth of the Vatican to make some amends to the victims. He has this power and budget, but does not use it. He’s all talk.

Pell has indicated that he will return home to fight the charges. But I’m not entirely sure that will happen. I think there’s a decent chance he remains cowering in the Vatican. I certainly hope he goes back to Australia, but he secreted himself away when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was investigating the institutionalization of child rape in Ballarat, a city under Pell’s direction at the time. Pell left Australia for the Vatican, accepting a special position created by the pope. He refused to return to testify before the commission, citing health reasons, even though he was seen walking around Vatican City in seemingly perfect health. He had avoided an earlier appearance as well. Pell later argued to that commission that it was simply a “disastrous coincidence” that a least five priests attacked children in Ballarat during his tenure. He testified from Rome, via video.

To a lawyer, this looks a lot like someone who might be charged with a crime trying to avoid the personal jurisdiction of his native legal system. Australia has no extradition treaty with the Vatican. Neither does the United States.

Does this sound familiar? It might. Cardinal Bernard Law did the same thing. You may remember Law as the monster who was exposed by the Boston Globe reporters who blew the child rape cover up in the Boston Archdiocese wide open. (Spotlight is the excellent Oscar-winning movie about this.) As the grand jury convened, Law fled — to Vatican City, where the 85-year-old remains today.

Law’s and Pell’s ability to hide in the Vatican is premised on some norms of international law that should not apply to the Catholic Church. I wrote a letter for the Freedom From Religion Foundation to President Trump, asking him to sever diplomatic relations with the Vatican because of situations just like this. You can read that letter and press release for the multitude of examples, but the central point is that the Vatican has abused its diplomatic privileges to obstruct justice by protecting pedophiles and war criminals.

The Catholic Church is an organization — not a country — that wields its political clout not for good as some might expect, but for greed and self-preservation. It has never shown any desire to cooperate with investigations into its finances and crimes. Our government is giving that obstinacy power and even immunity by maintaining diplomatic ties. We should sever those ties for moral and constitutional reasons. Otherwise, which religion will get diplomatic status next: the Church of Scientology? Of course not, because our government cannot constitutionally recognize religion as a favored diplomatic entity.

The institutionalization of child rape is not an internal Vatican matter; the rapists should be brought before secular tribunals.

It is only in the last few years that we’ve seen secular authorities begin to truly prosecute criminals who also happen to be members of the Vatican hierarchy. It wasn’t until 2012 that the first church official was convicted in America for covering up child rape. The priest’s sentencing statement makes it clear that he had not accepted responsibility for his crimes: “I have been a priest for 36 years, and I have done the best I can. I have always tried to help people.”

That I-did-my-best mindset is all that victims can expect in terms of Catholic justice. The Church covers up these crimes. It does not prosecute the violators. As I’ve written before, the church has, to put it charitably, an overabundance of mercy. Child rapists who happen to be in the Catholic hierarchy escape secular justice. Sure, they might be defrocked, but that’s not enough. People who rape and molest children belong in jail. But the church does virtually nothing.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The Catholic Church actively seeks to strangle justice. In New York, it spent millions lobbying to defeat the Child Victims Act, which would have eliminated many legal roadblocks for victims of childhood sexual abuse. Bill Donohue, the head bloviator for the Catholic League, in what may be one of the least self-aware statements ever made, called it “a vindictive bill pushed by lawyers and activists out to rape the Catholic Church.” That was in 2016. Catholics defeated the bill again in 2017.

A few years ago, I wrote about how the NCAA handled the Jerry Sandusky child-rape case at Penn State, which lasted only about a year after the allegations came to light. Sandusky was convicted, everyone involved at PSU was fired, and the NCAA handed down its harshest penalty ever. Those involved were also prosecuted by the secular authorities. The NCAA discovered a serious moral and criminal crisis in one of its subordinate bodies and acted swiftly to contain the crisis and punish those responsible. I concluded that article with a message to Catholics: “If there are any Catholics reading this, know that the NCAA, an organization governi­ng athletes, is far more ethical and upstanding than your church. The beliefs you cleave to and the tithes you give contribute to the rape of children and the cover-up of that abuse. … That is the hard truth, but this is not: It’s time to quit the Catholic Church.”

Bonus: Cardinal Pell gets schooled by atheist musicians Dan Barker and Tim Minchin

FFRF’s own co-president, Dan Barker, debated Cardinal Pell in Australia in 2010. Dan bested Pell, as you can see:

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But there’s one moment in the debate that Dan highlights in his book, Life Driven Purpose. Pell essentially likens atheists to “dogs at a concert. They have no understanding of the music, because the music is something that is spiritual and beautiful and real.” So I’d like to dedicate this next song to Cardinal Pell. It’s by the incomparable Tim Minchin. Minchin wrote the song when Pell was avoiding testifying before the Royal commission testimony. It’s brilliant on so many levels, the final taunt is particularly delicious in light of the personal jurisdiction dodging I mentioned above. All the proceeds — more than $200,000 — from the song went to a survivor’s charity.

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