Cardinal George Pell may be about to go on trial, but the Catholic Church is on trial too.
Disturbing and dispiriting though it is, the news from Australia today that the law will now take its course should be welcomed. The rumours and accusations swirling around Cardinal Pell for several years will now be put before a court of law. The stories of those who allege wrongdoing will now be listened to and their evidence will be heard before a judge. The Cardinal will be able to respond to the allegations against him. If he has been guilty of child sexual abuse, there must be a reckoning. Justice demands nothing less.
It has been announced that Cardinal Pell, who Pope Francis brought to Rome from Australia in February 2014 to clean up the Vatican’s finances, is "taking leave" from his job as Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy. When charges against a priest are issued in relation to sexual abuse allegations he is immediately stood down and does not perform any public liturgical ministry pending the outcome of the case. This should be the case whether the accused is a deacon, a priest, a bishop or a cardinal. Cardinal Pell has made valuable progress in sorting out some aspects of the Vatican's tangled financial institutions, but now he has to resign from his post, and a successor found quickly – or the reforms he has instituted may run into the sand. It is the responsibility of Pope Francis to ensure that the important work the Cardinal has been doing in Rome is driven forward.
The Australian criminal justice system also faces a challenge. Both in reaching a decision whether to prosecute and in putting the allegations before a jury - and in selecting one that can try the case fairly – it will not be easy for the police and legal system to ignore the enormous weight of public prejudice that is already being brought to bear against Cardinal Pell. Whatever the details of the criminal allegations he has to answer to, there has been public clamour in Australia - for several years - demanding if not the Cardinal's actual head, at least the utter destruction of his good name and public reputation. Cardinal Pell has the same right to due process and the presumption of innocence as every citizen.
Cardinal Pell has become emblematic of the kind of Catholicism that Australian anti-Catholics most detest, and there are many who would like to destroy him and in doing so inflict as much damage as possible on the Catholic Church. But the Church has handed them much of the ammunition they need, by its shameful individual and collective response to the sexual abuse of children by priests. As in Ireland, many church leaders in Australia seemed to lose sight of the Gospel, putting the defence of the reputation of the Church at the top of their priorities. Towards the victims there was callous myopia and amnesia at best. This cruelty towards the most vulnerable, hurt by the very people who should have protected them, will be neither forgotten nor forgiven.
These are dark and depressing days for the Catholic Church in Australia. Even if it learns from past failures and applies all the lessons - primarily that victims and survivors must always come first - recovery will not be quick or easy. A long hard road lies ahead, for Cardinal Pell and indeed for the whole Church.