Pounding George Pell in the press

The cardinal takes a hit from the Gray Lady

The “trial of the century” of Cardinal George Pell – the Vatican’s “number 3” man and head of its finances – on sexual abuse charges has been passed by a Melbourne Magistrate to the Victoria County Court for adjudication. On April 30, Magistrate Belinda Wallington found there was sufficient evidence to justify a trial for the 76-year old former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, who has been placed on leave by Pope Francis to respond to the charges.

The case has been closely followed by the Australian and Italian press for the past three years, while the US and British press has also covered the spectacle. The coverage has been all over the map. 

Some outlets, like The Australian, have done a thorough balanced job – others like the New York Times have fallen short in their professional standards. Conservative Catholic blogs have long criticized the coverage of the Pell case as against the cardinal – and part of the larger battle of doctrine being waged between progressives and traditionalists within the church.

Not unexpectedly, the Italian press has viewed the Pell case on advocacy-journalism lines – the anti-clerical or liberal papers have already found him guilty, the Catholic papers see him as a martyr to police misconduct, media bias and anti-Catholic sentiment, while the center plays it down the middle with a ‘too soon to tell’ what to think about George Pell approach.

When the charges surfaced last year, the Australian Associated Press (AAP) observed:

The centrist Corriere Della Sera newspaper noted the cardinal was “the highest representative of the Catholic Church every involved in such a case”. The liberal La Repubblica warned “the shadow of pedophilia and rape returns to obscure the church”. It described the cardinal as the “controversial kangaroo” and branded Australia as “a paradise of the orcs”, saying in the past seven per cent of priests had been accused of sexual assault.

Today’s headlines from Italy follow this pattern. The lede in La Repubblica’s story “Abusi sessuali e pedofilia, il cardinale Pell rinviato a giudizio in Australia” (Sexual abuse and paedophilia – Cardinal Pell indicted in Australia) states: 

Il tribunale di Melbourne dopo 4 settimane di udienze respinge alcune accuse, ma restano elementi sufficienti per procedere su alcuni dei casi contestati (After four weeks of hearing the tribunal in Melbourne has rejected some accusations, but sufficient elements (evidence) exists to proceed (to court) on the disputed cases.)

The La Repubblica reader will come away from this story with the sense that a prima facie case exists of guilt and a conviction is to be expected shortly, while the Corriere Della Sera reader of “Pedofilia, Pell a processo in Australia, Il cardinale rinviato a giudizio” will learn the issue remains in doubt.

L’arcivescovo australiano, già «ministro delle Finanze» della Santa Sede, è accusato di abusi. L‘estate scorsa aveva lasciato il Vaticano per tornare in patria e difendersi. Anche ieri si è dichiarato «non colpevole» (The Australian archbishop, formerly “Minister of Finance” of the Holy See, has been accused of abuse. Last summer he left the Vatican to return home to defend himself. Yesterday he declared himself “not guilty”.)

The best coverage I have read in the latest round of reporting comes in The Australian. It is to be expected that an Australian newspaper would devote more coverage to this “local” story, but the article entitled: “The trial of the century” by John Ferguson and Tessa Akerman is an example of top-flight reporting: natural skill with language coupled with solid reporting, balanced context and fair comment make this a winner.

It opens with a punch. 

The hearing in courtroom No 1 will be remembered in Catholic history as the location of George Pell’s second last stand. Magistrate Belinda Wallington, weighed by the gravity of the moment, appeared to look briefly down the barrel of Pell’s eyes before asking how he would plead.

Pell stared blankly before thundering: “NOT GUILTY.”

It was a decidedly Pell-like act of defiance and maybe even confidence that briefly concealed the look of absolute dejection that followed, with a date booked across the road at the County Court for a directions hearing today. Half the charges, including the most serious, were dropped.

This is nicely done – the language is strong and clear and grabs the reader’s attention.

Continue reading “Pounding Pell in the press,” at The Media Project

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