The Catholic Church Needs an Innocence Project

The Catholic Church Needs an Innocence Project
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Australia’s Cardinal Pell has been sentenced to six years for child sex abuse, but the evidence against Pell is far from convincing. Something needs to be done.

The Innocence Project is a program that has exonerated over 300 people wrongly convicted of serious crimes since 1992. Is it time to set up an “Innocence Project” for Catholic priests wrongly convicted of abuse?

Let’s be clear, it is horrific that clergy have abused children and young seminarians. The crime is even worse when the offender is – or was – part of the Church’s hierarchy. It’s long past time for the Catholic Church to purge these vile sex offenders from the ranks of the clergy, and for civil authorizes to bring them to justice. 

And yet the understandable desire to console abuse victims – coupled with general anti-Catholicism, which appears to have been a factor in Cardinal Pell’s case – risks convicting innocent men of guilt by association simply because they wear a clerical collar.

Australian prosecutors charged Pell with sexually assaulting two choirboys in the Melbourne Cathedral immediately following Sunday Mass in the mid-1990s, but his conviction has all the markings of a wrongful conviction. 

As revealed in a Catholic News Agency investigation, only one of the alleged victims testified to support the prosecution’s case. The other died in 2014. Pell’s attorneys presented a strong defense that the alleged abuse was literally impossible. Witnesses testified that Pell was never alone in the sacristy with altar servers or choir members. The cathedral’s sacristy has large open-plan rooms, each with open arches and halls as well as multiple entrances and exits. It was all but impossible for anything sordid to have gone unnoticed there. The cumbersome and layered liturgical vestments that require help in removing also make a quick, clandestine sexual assault by Pell after Mass highly improbable. Finally, there was overwhelming testimony that Pell was constantly surrounded by priests, other clergy, and guests after Mass – a detail that will surprise no one who has ever attended a Mass celebrated by an archbishop. Their masters of ceremony normally accompany bishops at all times. How, then, could Pell possibly have had time to so egregiously abuse two boys in an ecclesiastical Grand Central Station? 

Unlike cases involving pathological predators, the allegations against Pell are isolated. The alleged incidents in the cathedral, and the highly suspect single incident when Pell was a young seminarian which prosecutors have since abandoned, are the only complaints to emerge, despite years of aggressive investigation by the Australian government. How could someone so cavalier and desperate as to attempt such abuse basically in public not have hundreds of other victims? And, unlike prelates whose “double lives” were notorious, such as the now-defrocked Theodore McCarrick and West Virginia’s former bishop Michael Bransfield, those who know Pell are shocked and disbelieve the allegations.

Immediately after the charges were leveled against him, Pell decided to take leave of his post as head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and return to Australia to defend his innocence. He did so knowing that his country is aflame with anti-Catholicism from other Catholic sex scandals – an anti-Catholicism that prosecutors played to at trial, according to the Catholic News Agency.  

It’s worth remembering that earlier this year another high-ranking Australian prelate was convicted on the charge of failing to report clerical sexual abuse. An appellate judge overturned his conviction in early December of last year, noting that hype over the Church's sexual abuse crisis may have been a factor in the erroneous guilty verdict. 

So why did Pell’s prosecutors, after the initial jury deadlocked at 10-2 in favor of his acquittal, feel so emboldened to prosecute a second time? Law professors Paul Marcus (William and Mary) and Vicky Waye (South Australia) have noted numerous differences between America’s "rights-oriented" and Australia’s "official-centered" criminal jurisprudence. This may explain why, rather than stand down, Australian prosecutors forged ahead with the second jury trial that finally found Pell guilty last December.

The Catholic Church certainly needs to address the crisis of sexual abuse and corruption within its ranks. Some important reform steps have already been taken. More have been suggested and not yet implemented. Chief among these are a “zero tolerance” policy against clergy sexual abuse for all priests – including the hierarchy. But “zero tolerance” should not mean that any accusation automatically becomes a credible allegation. It should not mean that the burden of proof to convict a person for sexual misconduct is lower because the accused is a Catholic priest.

If Cardinal Pell’s conviction is not reversed on appeal, we may indeed need a new “Innocence Project.”

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.  

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