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Behind the hollow headlines

MELBOURNE (SE): News of the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty set to be celebrated on July 1 overshadowed the headlines in Australian newspapers on June 29 when police in Melbourne announced that George Cardinal Pell had become the highest ranking Church official ever to be charged with sexual offences.
A former archbishop of both Sydney and Melbourne, and currently the prefect for the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, Cardinal Pell is to face the court in Melbourne on July 26.
The rumour mill has been active for some time with suggestions that Cardinal Pell may be charged, but his high profile and the controversial nature of his handling as a bishop of offences committed by religious personnel, as well as his part in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse have cast doubt over the possibility of him receiving a fair trial in Australia.
The police and the judiciary have proceeded with caution. The exact nature and number of charges have not been named and the hearing will go ahead without publicity or revealing the identity of those who have brought the charges.
When the charges were laid, the Melbourne University Press announced that it would withdraw from sale a book it published, Cardinal: The rise and fall of George Pell, written by Louise Milligan, a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
It said that the book, which is described as a tell-all account of the cardinal’s life, has been withdrawn in order that a jury may not be prejudiced.
Although the nature of the probable nature of the charges is widely known, further description has been suppressed. 
Under court procedure in the state of Victoria the charges will be heard individually and no verdict will be released along the way, lest it prejudice the subsequent cases.
In a brief statement made from the Vatican, Cardinal Pell called the over two-year investigations that have been going on a relentless character assassination, finally repeating that he would return to Australia to clear his name.
However, for Cardinal Pell and for those anxious to see the matter that has simmered for some time settled, it will be a long wait, as the process could well drag on for a number of years.
But this case is not just about the cardinal or the Catholic Church, as Australia’s justice system is just as much on trial as they are.
While people may want a show trial against the high profile Church person, this is exactly what the justice system must ensure does not eventuate, as it must prove it can deliver justice even to a man in the dock already condemned by public opinion.
Pope Francis has been cautious in his response. Although Cardinal Pell made much of his ready acquiescence in giving him leave to return to Australia, he probably would have ordered him to do as much had he not asked.
In a guarded statement, the Vatican said, “The Holy Father, who has appreciated Cardinal Pell’s honesty during his three years of work in the Roman Curia, is grateful for his collaboration, and in particular his energetic dedication to the reforms in the economic and administrative sector, as well as his active participation in the Council of Cardinals.”
It also expressed its respect for the Australian justice system and highlighted Cardinal Pell’s consistent condemnation of sexual abuse as immoral and intolerable.
However, it was left to Pope Francis to talk of the importance of fostering truth and justice, as Cardinal Pell did not mention either in his statement to the media, but in interviews aired on Australian television with people leaving churches on July 2, they were the two values that they chose to highlight.
However, while popular media revelled in the sensation with headlines like Bombshell charges for Pell and Church in crisis, cooler pastoral heads looked behind the hollow headlines.
Monsignor Frank Marriott, from Bendigo, said from a conference he was attending with delegates from England and The Philippines on Marriage Beyond the Wedding, that this is a far more important topic for Australia than any matter to come before the Victorian Magistrates’ Court.
“The volatility of our communities is disrupting our sense of belonging and contributing to the lack of support for those contemplating marriage let alone wondering is it worthwhile,” he commented in putting the sensational headlines into some perspective.
The Church is a much bigger reality than its bishops and priests, as Australian religious journalist, Geraldine Doogue, points out the clergy are not at the heart of people’s faith.
“The vital commodity called personal conscience has always imbued the Catholic spirit at its core, which is its genius and makes the Church so troubling for many dictatorships around the world, because it fortifies individuals to reinvent themselves and defy authority,” she says in joining Monsignor Marriott in saying that flamboyant newspaper headlines about the Church being in crisis over the charging of one bishop, albeit a high ranking one, is far off the mark.
But, Cardinal Pell is always a controversial character. Perpetually described by the media as Australia’s most senior Catholic, which he never was, nor was he sought out as a spiritual director by a one-time prime minister, but he has never done anything towards stepping back from the image.
His non-appearance when summoned by the royal commission last year and subsequent appearance on a video link from Rome was widely criticised and many Catholics said that they found him embarrassing.
It also leaves many wondering how, if he could not travel then, how he will be able to just a few short months later.
But while Cardinal Pell is likely to entertain the media and be the butt of speculation for a long time to come, the Church is busy doing what the Church does in Australia.
Sunday Mass will still be celebrated, the 82,000 staff in its schools will turn up for work and its 66 hospitals will continue to operate, as will the St. Vincent de Paul Society, whose wide range of social services will continue to treat those who are wounded, while the broader Church continues as a source of consolation and meaning in life.

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