Although today's hearing in Melbourne was merely procedural, its impact will be felt worldwide. Whatever the outcome of the case against Pell, his presence today in a secular courtroom marks the victory of transparency over secrecy, and of the rule of law over the Vatican's failed strategy of containment.
Cardinal Pell accuses the Victoria police of targeting him unfairly. There may be some truth to this. But it's also true that the police have been neither hasty nor cavalier. They have been investigating complaints against the cardinal for more than two years, issued at least two public appeals for witnesses, and twice submitted evidence to prosecutors, seeking advice. (For more on their investigation, see our Timeline: The Victoria Police Investigation of Cardinal Pell.)
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And Pell is not the only Australian bishop subject to criminal charges. Adelaide archbishop Philip Wilson, charged with failure to report child abuse, is preparing for trial. Bishop Max L. Davis, head of the military diocese, was recently tried and found not guilty of child sex abuse.
In its quest to stop the sexual abuse of children, the Australian government has put the Catholic church on equal footing with other institutions, and treated its leaders as fellow citizens. Credit for this goes to its astonishingly open and thorough inquiry, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. That probe is singular in its sweep and power. But Catholic bishops are facing similar demands for accountability from authorities in Pennsylvania, Mexico City, Argentina, Ireland and France.
Accountability is trending, and Pope Francis should take note. He could begin with a simple but hugely constructive step: release the names of the more than 3, 400 priests that the Church itself has found guilty of child sex abuse.
For now, it's encouraging that the Pope did not offer Pell -- or perhaps the cardinal did not seek -- sanctuary within the Vatican City State. The Vatican has swept into its jurisdiction other high-ranking Church leaders sought by prosecutors -- Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Archbishop Józef Wesołowski come to mind. It's healthy for both Australia and the Catholic church that Pell will face his accusers in a court of law.
Although Pell is the highest ranking Catholic church official to be charged criminally with child sex abuse, more than 80 others have been accused of sexual wrongdoing. See our comprehensive list: Bishops Accused of Sexual Abuse and Misconduct: A Global Accounting
Founded in 2003 and based near Boston, Massachusetts, USA, BishopAccountability.org is a large online archive of documents, reports, and news articles documenting the global abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. An independent non-profit, it is not a victims' advocacy group and is not affiliated with any church, reform, or victims' organization. In 2016, its website hosted 1.6 million unique visitors.