Well into Pope Francis’s pontificate, one of his closest aides, the third-highest official in the Catholic Church, Cardinal George Pell, has now been credibly accused of several acts of sexual assault, including one of rape. Australian police have concluded that the evidence they have is sufficient to move forward, even in cases that happened long ago. Yesterday, Pell was allowed to hold his own press conference at the Vatican to tell us that he spoke with the Pope only a few days ago about a campaign of “character assassination” against him: “I’m very grateful to the Holy Father for giving me this leave to return to Australia.” The Pope’s spokesperson defended the Cardinal by saying that “it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as important and intolerable acts of abuse committed against minors.” And, of course, we should respect a presumption of innocence before a trial on crimes of this magnitude and depravity.
But it all feels sickeningly familiar. And this denouement comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has been following the sex-abuse crisis in the church — including Cardinal Pell’s own behavior — for the last few decades. A cloud has hung over Pell since he was an Episcopal vicar in a parish in the 1970s that has been described as a “pedophile’s paradise and a child’s nightmare.” A full 15 years ago, Pell was accused of molesting a 12-year-old boy but when the church investigated, a retired Supreme Court justice found that there wasn’t enough evidence, even though the victim appeared to be “speaking honestly from actual recollection.” A year later, Pope John Paul II made Pell a cardinal. Several new alleged victims spoke out in a book published only last month.
In 2015, Australia’s Channel 9 ran a 60 Minutes segment that can only be called horrifying. In it, one of Francis’s own appointees to investigate sex abuse, Peter Saunders, described Pell’s record on sexual abuse as “almost sociopathic.” Pell had a “catalogue of denials … a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness,” Saunders said on camera. “I would go as far to say that I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.” The report revealed a pattern of concealment of sex-abuse cases, callousness toward the victims, offers of pathetically small settlements, and testimony demonstrating that Pell moved around a pedophile priest for years who was later convicted of 138 counts of indecent assault and child sexual abuse. That priest, the notorious Gerald Ridsdale, even allegedly raped two of his own nephews. Who was his roommate and close friend in the 1970s? Who publicly accompanied him to his trial in a show of support? One George Pell — who has long insisted he hadn’t a clue what his close friend was up to. In fact, Pell once accused the police and an Australian broadcaster of criminal conspiracy against him. As he did yesterday, he responded with outrage that anyone could ever even dream of such a thing.
The evidence is much less conclusive. It emerged, to take just one example, that Pell once told a victim that an internal church investigation had found no evidence of any crime against him, even though it was subsequently revealed that the investigation found the opposite to be true, and Pell knew it. And then there was the testimony of Ridsdale’s nephew, David, before the Royal Commission on sex abuse. It’s hard to get it out of one’s mind.
Under oath, David recalled how, between the ages of 11 and 15, his uncle repeatedly raped him. At one point, in desperation, he reached out to George Pell, a family friend. This is how he described the conversation: “Nine a.m. on the 2nd February, 1993. I rang George from my home in Bentleigh. My partner at the time was sitting in the room when I made the call. I told George I had been abused by Gerald. His first reaction was, ‘Oh, right.’” No shock, just a sense of underlying anger, David recalled. Pell then asked him what it would take to keep him silent. David responded: “Excuse me, George, what the fuck are you talking about?” Pell’s response, according to David: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet,” to which David said, “Fuck you George, and everything you stand for,” and hung up. David not only had his partner to witness this conversation, he told two of his sisters immediately about it.
Many historical cases of sex abuse of minors are hard to prove. But it seems to me that multiple accusations of cover-ups and molestations against a Catholic priest from the 1950s through the 1970s should at this point raise, ahem, red flags. Appalling abusers have advanced for years in the church, defending themselves as definitively as Pell has — only to be found guilty. The notorious case of the founder of the Legion of Christ, Marcial Maciel, comes to mind. Protected by Pope John Paul II, coddled by Benedict XVI, he was also defended by an array of theological arch-conservatives as a paragon of virtue. That’s why I find it hard to take seriously George Weigel’s National Review piece yesterday entitled “The Persecution of Cardinal Pell.” Weigel also defended Maciel’s pedophile cult after accusations first emerged.
It has not been easy being a Catholic in the 21st century. For a gay Catholic, it has been close to agony. It comes as no surprise, for example, that Pell has upheld, like Maciel, a highly conservative theology on sexuality — which was why he was so favored by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He opposed the use of condoms to stop AIDS in Africa, refused to give communion to openly gay people, campaigned strenuously against marriage equality, and described the church sex-abuse scandal as not a function of minor abuse and cover-up but of allowing homosexuals to be priests (a ban on gay seminarians remains formally in place). In his own words: “80 percent of the abuse is with young boys. So I mean it’s obviously connected with the problem of homosexuality … We’ve got to see that [homosexuality] is not tolerated amongst clergy and religious orders.” To which I have to echo David Ridsdale: “Fuck you, George, and everything you stand for.”
What I cannot understand is why Pope Francis chose to advance this man under this cloud so high up the hierarchy. If Pell is found guilty, Francis will have advanced an accused abuser of children to the highest echelon in the Vatican. Far from cleaning the church of this evil, he will have contaminated it at its very apex. That’s why this case is indeed a watershed for Catholicism and Francis himself. If Francis can turn a blind eye to this, we can trust no one.
We were told that this Pope’s overriding theme was mercy. It would be a tragedy if the exception to this rule were to be any youngster whose life has been ruined, body violated, and soul raped by one of the Pope’s own right-hand men.
The polls remain dreadful for this joke of a president; the contradictions of Republicanism are being savagely exposed; the legislative agenda of an all-Republican government is careening. And yet I have the sinking feeling that the strategy we’re seeing from the resistance is defeating itself.
Some of this has to do with the usual Democratic mediocrity. Pelosi has no ability to project a coherent message; Schumer seems entirely reactive; and the base has fixed its sights on a Russian-collusion fantasy that may eventually be revealed as a vegan nothingburger. Can you imagine the victory tour Trump would have then? I just don’t know why we cannot simply let Mueller get on with his job, keep our mouths shut for a while, and wait for whatever results.
But it’s the cultural symbolism that is the most damaging. Yes, I know, Fox News would be scouring the earth for morsels of loony-left excess whatever liberals did. But do they have to make Tucker Carlson’s job so easy? Did you notice the role Kathy Griffin played in the recent Georgia special election? Congrats, too, to Johnny Depp for his equally insightful remarks at Glastonbury last week: “When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?” he asked, alluding to John Wilkes Booth. “I want to clarify, I am not an actor. I lie for a living. However, it has been a while and maybe it is time.”
And, look, I’m a huge defender of experimental theater — but did Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar have to be so crude? Credit also goes to the spoiled, cultish children of Evergreen State College whose racist intimidation of a progressive Jewish professor gave every Trump voter who might be feeling a small spasm of regret another reason to stick with their “side.” And an honorary mention to the lesbian group whose Dyke March in Chicago banned a rainbow flag with the Star of David on it — while hailing Muslim countries where gay people are lucky not to be lynched every day.
It doesn’t help matters that violence is also now associated with resistance. Middlebury’s postmodern mob resonated with every anti-intellectual fiber among the Trumpians. Ditto Berkeley’s. And it certainly doesn’t help that the New York Times has now given Sarah Palin a genuine case for libel and CNN has all but handed Trump a Russian bouquet of actual fake news. I have little doubt, moreover, that Trump will prevail in the Supreme Court on his immigration ban — because the president, for good or ill, has extraordinary authority over immigration in the U.S. Constitution.
The lack of any magnanimity among the victors of the culture war was also one of Trump’s aces last year. It took two decades to relentlessly persuade the American middle of the benefits of marriage equality — and now half of young evangelicals support those civil rights and support is at an all-time high. But when people who have never been engaged on transgender issues or met trans people have a visceral reaction to the idea of a girl with a dick in a high-school girls’ locker room, they’re suddenly hateful bigots? Please. Check your leftist privilege. And is it really necessary to coerce an evangelical baker to write a message on a cake that violates his conscience?
The excrescence in the White House is, I know, enough to make anyone lose self-control. But if resistance is going to work, it has to be disciplined. Too much is at stake to fumble this. Make an actual case on issues people care about, as the Labour Party did in Britain, surprising the world. Yes, expose his madness at every turn. But if he is going to become a cautionary experiment that America will never try again — as he must — it’s the middle of the country we have to persuade. And we won’t do that by offending, alienating, and insulting them.
A short update on Trump’s mental health. I’m not entirely sure if the unraveling is intensifying or if there was anything raveled in the first place. But it’s important to keep stating the obvious. The great difficulty of living with someone who is seriously delusional is that you eventually acclimate to it, find yourself responding to it, and thereby eventually lose any solid sense of reality itself. So let me just say that there is something profoundly unhinged about someone who creates a fake Time magazine cover about himself, and has the photo framed and hanging in several of his properties, and, when this is revealed, refuses to say anything about it. It’s a delusional, absurd form of pathological narcissism and deceit that should, in any sane country, lead to his removal from office. It’s of a pattern with his completely psychotic statements about his inaugural crowds, Obama’s alleged wiretapping, the various health-care plans he has no understanding of, the tweeting “foreign policy” that is fast destroying the credibility of his own secretary of State, the invention of “intelligence” about North Korea, and the simply whack-job, misogynistic attacks on Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.
There is no precedent for this behavior in the Oval Office in American history, even in Nixon’s deranged final days. The case for impeachment seems to me, at this point, far less salient than the invocation of the 25th Amendment. If someone this unstable, this delusional, and this unwell cannot be removed from office, who can?
See you next Friday.