Pounding Pell in the press: The Cardinal takes a hit from the Gray Lady

(COMMENTARY) 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 AustralianIt 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. The rest of the article does not disappointment. The background to the case is offered fairly with points in favor of the accused and the accuser offered with little shading. The voices of Cardinal Pell and his supporters as well as the alleged victims and their advocates are clearly heard - they speak for themselves.

But it was in his closing comments during the committal hearing that (Pell’s attorney) best summarised the Pell team’s position. “We say that Cardinal Pell, representing the face of the Catholic Church, a prominent person, had been the obvious target of allegations that are not true but are designed to punish him, almost, for not having prevented sexual abuse for many years,” he said.

The article also provides context - explaining the implications of the magistrate’s ruling.

The committal makes no judgment of his guilt or innocence but puts him for the first time in front of one or more juries. It also triggers the trial of the century, with not only Pell but the entire criminal justice system under scrutiny, from the police force up, as the cardinal’s defence team tries to tear apart the remaining charges of historical sex off­ences involving multiple com­plain­ants.

If you read only one article on the Pell case, pick this one. 

The New York Times also has a report with a Melbourne dateline, but it is far from satisfactory. The article “Cardinal George Pell to Stand Trial on Historical Sex Offenses” is half the length of The Australian story but has not a tenth the merit of “The trial of the century." It lacks context, is unbalanced, and biased. The lede states:

MELBOURNE, Australia — Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s third-highest-ranking official, must stand trial on several charges of sexual abuse, an Australian court ruled on Tuesday, promising to prolong a case that has already dragged on for months, and which many see as a moment of reckoning for a church racked by scandal.

The lede in a news article is one of the few places where the author can display their personal views or angles - it often telegraphs where the story will lead. This lede makes two points, the second is a “trial of the century” comment, but from an anti-Catholic perspective. The “many see”, without qualifying who the many are, what they see, why they see it, and why we should care what they say about what they see, is troubling in a straight news story.

The assertion the case has “already dragged on for months”, however, is bizarre. What does that mean and why is it put at the top of the story? I am reminded of the Red Queen remarks from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll - “No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first — verdict afterwards.’” (Chapter XII)

The NYT story summarizes the general outline of the case, but omits details favorable to Cardinal Pell, before turning to commentary and observations.

Three voices are offered to explain the case to the reader, “Phil Nagle, an advocate for abuse victims”, “Judy Courtin, a lawyer and advocate who has represented sexual abuse victims”, and “John Allen, editor of the independent Catholic news website Crux.”

Allen offers a word of conventional wisdom that Pell’s star was in its descent at the Vatican before the trial began. Which is, of course, true - but that is tied to the doctrinal battles taking place between traditionalists and progressives - with Pell being a leader of the traditionalist camp. Why include Allen’s comments if they are not put into meaningful context? The author’s lack of knowledge of the religion news comes into full display here.

But is it wise to offer as commentary only voices of victim’s advocates? Are there no Pell supporters to speak out on his behalf? No official statements from the Australian church or the Vatican? There are, but they did not make it into this piece.

It is not fair to compare a mid-sized story to an in-depth story when it comes to detail of description or the quantity of voices. However, one can still do a fair job by presenting both sides of an argument and letting the reader decide. The New York Times piece fails by this standard. Its report on the Pell affair should be classified with those found in the Italian press - advocacy reporting, not traditional Anglo-American journalism.