We Must Demand Justice for Innocent Priests

“Truth, what is that?” Pilate’s question is answered in the Good Friday liturgy: Ecce Lignum Crucis! “Behold the wood of the cross!”

Sadly, however, Pilate is the biblical forefather of the relativism that is the salient feature of post-Christian society in the Western world. In post-Christian Australia, “freedom” is defined as doing what you want: all have the right to do what they want provided that they don’t hurt or interfere with anyone else. Justice, meanwhile, is defined as the minimal amount of force necessary to allow people to be “free.” We supposedly need a court system, police, army, and laws so that people can do what they want without interfering with or hurting anyone else. But there will always be people who want to interfere with and hurt others. Therefore, in this understanding, there cannot be total “freedom”—at least, not for everyone.

In the Christian definition, freedom has an end. It’s defined as the ability and opportunity to do what is good. It is freedom for virtue. This requires a society in which a determinate number of people principally agree as to what is True; but they must consequently and will necessarily also agree as to what is Beautiful and Good. United under the wood of the cross, Christians know what Truth is and, therefore, they know what is right and just. It’s this shared belief that once gave Australia (which has never been a Catholic country) social cohesion and peaceable resolve. But that unity no longer exists. There are enough of those shared values in Australian society-at-large that we might yet fight off bushfires as our nation has done this summer but, still, I have grave concerns that we as a society are unable to face a crisis like the novel coronavirus and its subsequent economic peril with the same resolve. Why? Because we ran out of toilet paper almost immediately! It was a clear indication that we Australians no longer share fundamental common values and beliefs. As a society, we no longer face the Cross. We no longer face the Truth.

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The problem in Australia today is that we have met the pervert, the abomination, and the dissident. But because we are committed to the notion that all are free to do what they want, we have raised the abnormal, the aberrant, and the sinful to the status of a human right! A vicious sentimentalism is at loose in the media, in our universities, in politics, and within the Catholic Church Herself. Within the Catholic Church, we certainly can no longer agree as to what is Beautiful and Good.

Witness my own parish. Wonderfully, two forms of the one Easter Triduum were celebrated this year. Various, predominantly young men who were involved in these ceremonies (at 39, I am a venerable old man in this group) remarked on the contrasting beauty of the older ceremonies when compared with the new. More interesting is that those who are witnessing these ancient rites for the first time are struck by what they describe to me as “authenticity” and “depth.” Beauty is one of Truth’s handmaids: she follows where Truth goes.

The vicious sentimentalism at loose in the ranks of both the clerical elite—principally bishops and their clericalized, well-funded legions of lay factotums (or is that factotae? It isn’t in my ‘62 Missal), and the secular elites—have raised sentiment, mere feelings, over the “mental,” which is our reason, our thought, and our rational judgement of right from wrong. To be “senti-mental” is to sensate or feel first and think later, if at all.

Truth has long been far from the minds of Church leaders who, like the chief priests of old, feared that the secular authorities would “destroy the nation,” so to speak, by interfering with the Church if the truth of sexual abuse were not covered up. But no lessons have been learned by the chief priests from the recently concluded Australian government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, because the truth is still not the principal concern of Church authorities who—like all weak men, even before Pilate’s day—seek to control rather than lead and in so doing militate against the Truth that sets all free. In a culture where bishops continue to conduct themselves like medieval potentates answerable to nobody and lacking in transparency and accountability, the innocent will be swallowed up with the guilty like Our Lord crucified between two thieves. In his recent statement, following his acquittal, George Cardinal Pell wrote:

My trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the Church. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not. The only basis for long-term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.

The statement of Australia’s Conference of Catholic Bishops read:

Today’s outcome will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the Cardinal’s innocence throughout this lengthy process. We also recognise that the High Court’s decision will be devastating for others. Many have suffered greatly through the process, which has now reached its conclusion.

Some people welcome this; they believed the Cardinal was innocent all along. Others are devastated. As Pilate said, “The Truth, what is that?”

Only the Truth can set victims of clerical sexual abuse free. Only the Truth can set anyone free. And to be truly free all of us, victims or not, must be free for the good—free for virtue, even if that is difficult or if it pains us emotionally. Seeking justice, that is, to act justly, is a virtue. The failure to seek the truth and to act justly means that we do not know who abused “J,” as Cardinal Pell’s accuser has been identified by the courts.

Despite untold millions of dollars and renewed trauma, we have not been able to set “J” or numerous other victims free, at least not in the Christian sense of freedom. Instead, a vocal minority of Australians have been set “free,” free in the secular sense of the word to harass others, to defame and scandalize, to calumniate, and to detract. Free to destroy lives where the truth and healing should have been sought. All was ultimately done to satisfy the vicious sentiments of a few.

Sadly, in this day and age, the Australian criminal justice system was unlikely to set “J” or any other victim free. What we’re experiencing is really a low ebb in Australian political and social discourse. The criminal justice process is not, even in theory, a search for the truth. It is an adversarial process where the accused—in this case, Cardinal Pell—fights against the Queen, meaning the government. This adversarial contest is designed to protect the principle that no person be found guilty of a crime without proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Pell case must be seen in this context. It is absolutely fundamental, axiomatic, and the very basis of the Anglo-Saxon justice system: guilt must be proved by the state beyond a reasonable doubt. The accused is not obliged to say or do anything, let alone prove anything. But a number of abuses of process occurred in this case. These abuses of the legal process only prolonged and exacerbated the abuse of “J” and numerous other victims of clerical sexual abuse who understandably suffered throughout not only the trial but because they were also trodden on in a mawkish media mosh pit—largely the work of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, at a cost of around $1 billion per annum to the Australian taxpayer.

Principal among the procedural abusers stands the Victoria Police, who went trawling for complainants more than one year before they charged Cardinal Pell with any crime. But these abusers were quickly followed by the Director of Public Prosecutions Office (DPP), whose dereliction of duty led to a man being charged with barely a scintilla of evidence. The police didn’t have anything approximating proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and it was the duty of the DPP to insist upon stronger evidence before proceeding to trial.

The Australian media piled on the abuse over the course of at least a decade; this intensified during the Australian government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It was not possible for Cardinal Pell to receive a fair trial in this country—a fact that was probably obvious to certain nefarious individuals in Italy, where Cardinal Pell was sifting through the Vatican’s bank accounts at the time he was charged.

Regarding a fair trial, it isn’t possible in the great state of Victoria to conduct a criminal trial before a judge alone. Consequently, the Victoria criminal justice system is beholden to the undue influence of media rabble-rousers who care less for the welfare of “J” and other victims than they do for the sale of tabloid advertising space in a country where toilet paper is already a scarce commodity. The abuse continued in the judgment of two Victoria Appeal Court judges who evidently skipped the Intro to Criminal Law lectures when the professor was explaining guilt being proved beyond reasonable doubt. (I remember that one from my first-year law school class) The judges found that “J” was credible and “not a fantasist.” And as much as that was, no doubt, a comfort to “J,” it was not as comforting as finding his abuser and throwing him into jail would have been.

There ought to be a public inquiry into the conduct of the Pell case, the Victoria Police, and the Andrews government’s administration of the Victorian criminal justice system. Moreover, the Catholic bishops of Australia ought to call for this inquiry in pursuit of the truth, if for no other reason than to bring healing and comfort to victims of clerical sexual abuse like “J.” This has not happened, however, because the Church hierarchy—almost to a man—follows where the post-Christian Australian elites lead.

The bishops in Australia have adopted a weak imitation of the secular authorities like Dan Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, who released a brief statement following the cardinal’s acquittal in which he said: “I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you. I hear you. I believe you.” Bishops followed suit with platitudes of care and concern for victims and again, in the words of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, promises of “unwavering commitment to child safety.” Even if bishops acknowledged Cardinal Pell’s innocence in their statements following his acquittal they, like Premier Dan Andrews, have effectively declared that there is presumption of guilt in cases of child sexual abuse. In so doing, the bishops repeat and exacerbate the abuse of process that occurred in the Pell case thus rendering their care and concern for victims null and void.

They are not seeking the truth—”Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). It would seem that when the Victoria Appeal Court justices were skipping first-year law school, Australian bishops might have also ditched a few Introductory Bible Studies lessons.

As a Catholic priest and a qualified lawyer from a legal family, I have no confidence in the abilities or the willingness of Australian Catholic bishops, generally, to do justice for “J” or any victims of clerical abuse. I know of too many cases where priests in Australia have been accused of all manner of “abuse,” from sexual to physical to emotional. In all the cases I know of, the reaction of the bishop has been to make statements of care and concern and to initiate a process of inquiry wherein natural justice is denied.

Normally, natural justice is denied, as it was in the Pell case, by denying the defendant the opportunity of meeting his accuser. In Cardinal Pell’s case, at the first trial, “J” gave evidence to the Court via video link from a remote location. In the second trial, “J’s” testimony and cross-examination were only replayed to a fresh jury.

In the internal governance of the Church, I have seen a now-familiar pattern of abuse. The bishop calls for an “independent” inquisitor—often enough one of his factotums, who is kept on the chancery pay roll for this very purpose—to make accusations against the priest on behalf of the “victim.” The priest and alleged victim do not meet. In some cases, an inquiry is conducted, and the priest is simply asked to respond to the findings thereof.

The Code of Canon Law is rarely if ever invoked in these matters. If it’s deployed at all, it is to tell the priest that, under obedience, he is not to discuss the matter with anyone. Priests have been placed under what is effectively house arrest, stripped of their license to preach or to offer Mass publicly, while others have been spat upon and run out of their parishes. One I know of committed suicide; still others have been denied incardination into the diocese or excardination from a diocese.

The long and the short of this experience is that bishops of Australia have simply found another victim: the priest. They have not or will not do justice for anyone, including victims of clerical sexual abuse. As the cardinal rightly said: “the only basis for justice is truth because justice means truth for all.” This means truth for victims and truth for alleged abusers, no matter what the nature of the alleged abuse is. This means truth at all times, in all places and in all situations. When a priest is accused of almost any abuse, child-sexual abuse or otherwise, what remains at issue to this day is the reputation (or the perceived reputation) of men who would sooner close a Catholic church than close a Catholic school in the middle of a pandemic—another example of institutionalized child abuse.

I pray for “J” and other abuse victims. I have a statue of the Sacred Heart of the Child Jesus, and it reminds me of “J” and priest friends and my lay friends who have been victims of clerical sexual abuse and of Cardinal Pell. The child Jesus grew up to be denied justice and die on a cross—a wrongly convicted man destroyed by a conspiracy of secular and religious authorities to deny the truth while appearing to be in control, pious, and concerned for the practice of right religion and the preservation of public order and discipline. They figured they’d done their work before the pubs had closed on a Friday afternoon. Before the weekend was over, however, the Truth was out, and their conspiracy undone.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images


  • Fr. Nicholas Rynne

    Fr. Nicholas Rynne is a priest of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia. Before entering seminary, he worked as a solicitor. He now serves in All Hallows’ Parish, Five Dock, in Sydney.

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