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Analysis: What the Pell case means for Vatican reform

Pell Church Reform Secrecy
Title: Analysis: What the Pell case means for Vatican reform
Publisher: Catholic Herald
Date: 10APR2020
His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell, is a free man – news that was received with a measure of relief at the Vatican and abroad, even by persons not well disposed to Cardinal Pell or the Church.

The Holy See sounded a cautious note. “The decision of Australia’s high court has only just been communicated,” Holy See press office director Matteo Bruni told the Catholic Herald earlier this week. “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, together with the other competent organisms of the Holy See, shall clearly make their opportune evaluations on the basis of canonical norms currently in force.”

In and around the Vatican, there was general consensus that right process should be followed. “The legal systems in Australia and within the Catholic Church are very different,” said Fr Hans Zollner SJ, who heads the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Centre for Child Protection and helps supervise the Holy See’s safeguarding task force. “What can be learned is that all parties need to stick to the rules and follow through due process, even if one doesn’t agree with the outcome.”

Transparency: Victoria and Rome

Cardinal Pell’s trial in Victoria was conducted under a gag rule – just one of the many factors contributing to general concerns about the integrity of the process he received. It was meaningfully public nevertheless, and in a way trials at ecclesiastical court are not.

Canonical tribunals do not publish charges. Proceedings are not open to the public – in fact, canonical processes are basically paper affairs – and verdicts are reported, if at all, in nebulous terms. The secrecy undermines public confidence in the Church’s ability to deliver justice. That, in turn can embolden wrongdoers and demoralise those within the Church – especially clerics – who would like to do the right thing.

This is not a new problem.

“[Secrecy] has long undermined that confidence,” Fr Zöllner told the Herald on Wednesday, “but, when Pope Francis abolished the application of the Pontifical Secret to cases of abuse, many people realized that serious steps are being taken towards necessary transparency.”

Fr Zöllner also told us that other measures are under consideration, which would favour greater transparency. “[The measures under consideration] more clearly define the rights of all parties involved, first and foremost the rights of the victims.” Zöllner said, though he did not go into specifics.

Until those measures are in place, general public confidence not only in the Church’s ability to deliver justice, but to create safe environments, will suffer.

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