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Press: Pell: evidence is needed for an informed decision

17 April 2020


Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Good Shepherd Seminary, Sydney, on Holy Wednesday after spending 405 days behind bars

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Good Shepherd Seminary, Sydney, on Holy Wednesday after spending 405 days behind bars

“HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY”, President Trump wrote on Twitter, all in capitals. I imagine him at Golgotha, where he gestures at the crosses. “There are good people on both sides,” he says. “And the ratings are incredible.”

I suppose the most important global reli­gious story in the run-up to Easter was the acquittal, on appeal, of Cardinal Pell, on Holy Tuesday (News, 9 April). This was most thor­oughly covered by The New York Times, which managed to give some sense of the complex­ities of the case. “The verdict, handed down by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel to a largely empty courtroom in Brisbane because of social dis­tanc­­­ing measures to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, shocked Catholics in Australia and around the world.

“Cardinal Pell had receded from the public mind during his time in prison, and with the exception of his die-hard supporters, most Australians had come to accept his guilt as an established fact,” the news report said. A news analysis piece pointed out that “The world may never be able to assess whether the court’s reasoning was sound.

“The panel of seven judges ruled that the jury lacked sufficient doubt about the accusa­tions against Cardinal Pell, the former arch­bishop of Melbourne and treasurer for the Vatican. Jurors, the court argued, ignored ‘com­­pounding improbabilities’ caused by con­flicting accounts from the cardinal’s main ac­­cuser and other witnesses. But no one outside the court case can test that comparison. The central evidence — the testimony of the main accuser, on which the case ‘was wholly depen­­dent,’ the judges wrote — has never been re­­leased, not in video, audio nor even redacted transcripts.”

This remains extraordinary and deeply unsatisfying. The press was unable to publish, or even to learn for itself, the evidence on which the public might have made an in­­­formed decision. All the coverage could ever do was reinforce both sides of the culture war in their conviction that they were right.


IN THIS country, the decision to close churches over Easter (News, 27 March) threw up difficulties and a lot of opposition. The case for the closure was put most force­fully by a small news item: two leaders of a black-led Pentecostal congregation in Wolver­hampton died, and another ten were feared to be close to death, after all had taken part in a prayer meeting. Elsewhere, this was even clearer; the Muslim revivalist organisation Tablighi Jamaat appeared responsible for one third of the early coronavirus cases before its headquarters were shut down; in Israel, the army was sent in to enforce lockdown on the ultra-Orthodox.

The case against closure was made mostly in The Daily Telegraph, with a Good Friday leader that made one good point: “The churches want to be seen to be doing the right thing and to offer public ‘leadership’, but given how fast church attendance is falling in the UK, one has to ask to whom they think they are setting an example?” This was followed by a long succession of bad points. “Where is the great tradition of Christian heroism, of ‘giving until it hurts’, as Mother Teresa put it?” She wasn’t talking about sharing a virus. “It cannot be that difficult to open one or two cathedrals on Easter Sunday, strictly for soli­­­tary prayer and with social distancing enforced.”

Had the person who wrote this thought for a moment what would have hap­pened if all the Roman Catholics in London had converged on Westminster Cathedral because that was the only place they could go to mass?


THE Telegraph and the Mail carried almost identical stories about clergy defying either a “church edict” (Telegraph) or “Justin Welby” (Mail), to live-stream from their churches. Neither paper has, at the time of writing, carried the story of the Anglo-Catholic vicar whose live stream from home was interrupted by his friend appearing briefly, or even nakedly, from behind the door where the vest­ments were hanging, and then disappear­ing faster. Perhaps, one bishop suggested to me, they were merely re-enacting Mark 14.51 for the edification and delight of his parish­ioners.


IN THE background to all these stories is an­­other: the impending collapse of much of the established news business. Obviously, this feels more important to those of us who work there, but it is going to ooze into every part of public life. In the religious press, The Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News have gone into liquidation, and the Catholic Herald has gone monthly. In the secular press, newspaper sales have fal­­­len by one fifth, and by nearly a half in super­markets, according to the Financial Times.

The online business has never looked better, with an apparently insatiable appetite on the part of readers for stories about the disease. But looks are deceptive. Advertisers don’t share this appetite. They can specify that their ads should not appear online next to stories with certain keywords, and that they don’t want to be associated with death. One lobby group has claimed that these blocks will cost the national papers £50 million in the next three months. Some of them haven’t got that money to lose.

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