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After guilty verdict, questions raised about Pell trial

Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2018 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- After reports of a guilty verdict emerged in the trial of Australian Cardinal George Pell, some in Australia have questioned the integrity of a process undertaken under the veil of a media blackout.

The cardinal was convicted Dec. 11 on five charges that he sexually abused two altar servers while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s. The unanimous verdict followed an earlier mistrial in which, CNA has confirmed with multiple sources, a jury was deadlocked at 10-2 in favor of a “not guilty” verdict.

The guilty verdict comes ahead of a second trial, scheduled for February 2019, in which Pell will face further accusations of abuse dating back to the 1970s, during which time he served as a priest in Ballarat.

Reporting restrictions imposed by the County Court of Victoria mean that the progress or outcomes of the trial cannot be covered by local media or broadcast electronically into Australia. No media discussion of the accusations or Pell’s defense is permitted in the country.

Those who violate the gag order could be subject to contempt of court charges by Victoria prosecutors.

Nevertheless, CNA has spoken to several sources familiar with the Pell case, all of whom expressed disbelief at the verdict. The sources spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the legal gag order imposed by the court.

“They have convicted an innocent man,” one source directly familiar with the evidence told CNA. “What’s worse is that they know they have.”

An individual who attended the entire trial in person but is unconnected with Pell’s legal team, told CNA that Pell’s lawyers had made an “unanswerable defense.”

“It was absolutely clear to everyone in that court that the accusations were baseless. It wasn’t that Pell didn’t do what he’s accused of - he clearly couldn’t have done it.”

The allegations are understood to concern Pell assaulting the two choristers in the sacristy of Melbourne cathedral on several occasions immediately following Sunday Mass.

The defense presented a range of witnesses who testified that the cardinal was never alone in the sacristy with altar servers or members of the choir, and that in all the circumstances under which the allegations are alleged to have taken place, several people would have been present in the room.

The sacristy in Melbourne’s Cathedral has large open-plan rooms, each with open arches and halls, and multiple entrances and exits, the defense noted.

Defense attorneys also produced a range of witnesses who testified that Pell was constantly surrounded by priests, other clergy, and guests following Sunday Masses in the cathedral, and that choristers had a room entirely separate from the sacristy in which they changed as a group, before and after Mass.

Observers also questioned whether some courtroom tactics used by state prosecutors were intended to stoke anti-clerical feelings in jury members.

One priest, a Jesuit, was called as an expert witness by the defense, but was consistently referred to as a “Christian Brother” by prosecutors - a move, the court observer told CNA, that seemed calculated to invoke the religious order at the center of a widely known clerical sexual abuse scandal in the country.

“It was a blatant move, but it sums up the sort of anti-Catholic, anti-clerical drift of the whole trial,” CNA’s courtroom source said. “The jury were being winked at.”

Full discussion of the charges and the evidence laid against Pell remains impossible because of the media blackout. The gag order was imposed at the request of prosecutors in June, who argued that media attention could bias the case.

“It’s absurd,” another source directly familiar with the trial told CNA. “Any Catholic in Victoria can tell you that our media has been steeped in anti-Catholic, anti-clerical and especially anti-Pell coverage for more than two decades. The prosecutors were perfectly happy with all of that leading up to the trial, and for it to carry on now.”

“The only thing you can’t talk about are the facts of the case,” the source said.

In a May 2015 column for The Australian, journalist Gerard Henderson said that Pell was the victim of a “modern-day witch hunt.” Henderson drew specific attention to what he called biased and inaccurate coverage of Pell by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“The lack of balance in the media’s reporting of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church reflects the fact many journalists detest Pell’s conservatism,” Henderson wrote.

Henderson also noted that as Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell brought in a new program to deal with accusations of sexual abuse and to compensate victims within months of his arrival.

“On all the available evidence, Pell was among the first Catholic bishops in the world to address the issue of child sexual abuse by clergy,” Henderson concluded.

The cardinal’s legal team is said to be scrupulously complying with the gag order as lawyers work towards filing an appeal against the guilty verdict.

While open discussion of the case remains impossible in Australia, concerns about a biased jury pool in the second trial have begun to surface indirectly.

On December 13, Victoria state Attorney-General Jill Hennessy told the Australian newspaper The Age that she had asked her department to examine the option of judge-only trials in high profile cases, where an impartial jury might be difficult to find. The state of Victoria is one of the few jurisdictions in Australia not to permit the option of a bench trial in cases like Pell’s.

Earlier this year, former Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson was tried and convicted before a magistrate’s court in the state of New South Wales, on the charge of failing to report clerical sexual abuse. His conviction was overturned on appeal. Appellate judge Roy Ellis noted that media portrayals of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis might have been a factor in the guilty verdict.

Such portrayals “may amount to perceived pressure for a court to reach a conclusion which seems to be consistent with the direction of public opinion, rather than being consistent with the rule of law that requires a court to hand down individual justice in its decision-making processes,” he said.

Victoria has faced sustained criticism for the use of suppression orders by the state’s courts. Despite an Open Courts Act passed in 2013 aimed at improving judicial transparency, Victorian courts issued more than 1500 suppression orders between 2014-2016.

One source close to Pell told CNA that the cardinal’s treatment during his trial had been “Kafka-esque.”

“Prosecutors can retry him - in secret - until they get a conviction, but there can’t be any discussion of what he’s accused of, no scrutiny of the evidence against him, and no questioning the verdict. On what planet is this justice?”

Cardinal Pell is expected to be sentenced in January. He can appeal the guilty verdict to the Supreme Court of Victoria.

 

A ‘clericalist and apostate state:’ Why Jacob Rees-Mogg wants out of the EU

London, England, Dec 14, 2018 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The question of how the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, and on what terms, has monopolized British politics since the 2016 referendum in which voters decisively opted out of the international body.


Since that vote, debate about Brexit has created a cultural and political divide in the U.K.  Many argue that by leaving the EU, Britain is turning its back from more than a political structure, but from its long-standing commitment to international cooperation.

 

The Church has no official position on Brexit, but many bishops have expressed their personal views on the subject, mostly in favor of the E.U.

 

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, an Englishman and the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, came closest to voicing an official Vatican line when he said, shortly before the Brexit vote, that the British departure was “not something that would make a stronger Europe.”

 

As with most political questions, individual Catholics are free to form their own opinions in good conscience, and in Britain Catholics can be found on both sides of the debate.

 

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Member of Parliament for North East Somerset, is one of the most visible Catholic politicians in the U.K. He is also one of the leading voices in favor of Brexit. He spoke to CNA about his views on the Catholic case for leaving the EU, and why he finds it unsurprising that many in the Church appear to have a preference for the union.

 

“I think there is a great deal of residual affection for the EU because of its origins,” he told CNA. “As a project, it was first put forward by Christian Democrats from the founding member states, and it was intended to have a Christian and democratic ethos.”

 

But, Rees-Mogg said, while its origins may have been rooted in a democratic and Christian vision of Europe, this inheritance has long since been left behind.

 

“It is worth recalling that, over the strong objections of successive popes, there was no reference to either God or the Christian heritage of Europe in the proposed EU constitution [which was rejected by French and Dutch voters and became the Lisbon Treaty]. Whatever its origins were, the EU is now a profoundly secular state.”

 

The MP said that examples of liberal secularism taking precedence in the EU’s governance are not hard to find.

 

In 2004, Rocco Buttiglione was nominated by the Italian government to serve on the European Commission, the body that proposes EU legislation and manages the union’s day-to-day business. His nomination was withdrawn after other EU politicians objected to his Catholic views on marriage, family, and homosexuality, characterizing them as incompatible with a senior position in the union.

 

Rees-Mogg pointed out to CNA that the EU has also been staunchly supportive of the spread of abortion in Africa, calling the policy a “small but indicative” part of the union’s work and values.

 

Instead of a Christian organization, or even a secular-but-neutral one, Rees-Mogg suggested that the EU might be better understood as “arguably moving in the direction of an apostate state; what the Church has historically considered the very worst outcome.”

 

As a political structure, the EU is meant to function as a democratic body, in which participating countries pool their collective sovereignty in service of the good of all.

 

Recently, Pope Francis has spoken frequently about “clericalism” in the Church, in which authority is exercised, even abused, for the benefit of those in power and without reference to the people they are meant to serve, or accountability to them.

 

According to Rees-Mogg, a similar kind of dynamic is at work within the EU which, he says, functions in practice as a “clericalist state” in which the sovereignty of the people is lost to an elite, not shared among equals.

 

“If you look at how European leaders come to power in the EU, they are appointed by and accountable to each other, not the people. The European Commission is the final destination for so many politicians rejected by voters in their own countries, even their own parties. They are an elite which looks after its own.”

 

“From the U.K. alone, we see a litany of politicians like Chris Patten and Neil Kinnock, who lost elections and yet were given more power as European Commissioners than ever they had as elected politicians in Britain. In that respect it is worse than the House of Lords.”

 

One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity, the organizing principle in which decisions made at the lowest level possible, to allow for greater accountability and responsiveness to the needs of the community. It is also a principle incorporated in to many of the EU’s founding treaties.

 

But, Rees-Mogg warned, the EU’s references to subsidiarity are in themselves no guarantee of accountability.

 

“Subsidiarity is a principle which I treat with the greatest of caution. We must remember that it is taken from perhaps the most centralised organization in the world, after all. It is the nation-state which is, in the end, subject to the people through elections, and it is the nation-state which properly serves the people and defends their interests.”

 

As the U.K. government searches for a post-Brexit settlement acceptable to both the EU and the British parliament, trade remains a serious sticking point; the free flow of goods across the Irish border is one of several key considerations.

 

Many in the U.K. wanted to see a common agreement on the minimum standards of goods, to ensure that free trade can continue. But, from Rees-Mogg’s perspective, EU regulations are often directed at creating a barrier to trade, not preserving common standards. The EU imposes regulatory standards on a rage of goods, including - for example-  a minimum and maximum acceptable curvature for bananas.

 

“These non-tariff barriers are not about maintaining common standards. What they are is a conscious effort to block imports, even from some of the poorest countries, and they serve the European Union as an organization, not the people.”

 

As Prime Minister Theresa May attempts to forge a last-minute deal that will satisfy all sides, it remains to be seen what final form Brexit will take.

 

In the meantime, Rees-Mogg told CNA he will continue to work for a Britain free from what he sees as an elitist institution- the EU.

 

“In a democracy, the first duty of a government is to protect the freedom of its people and the first freedom of the people is to hold their leaders to account.”

Vatican Christmas concert will support refugees in Iraq, Uganda

Vatican City, Dec 14, 2018 / 10:17 am (CNA/EWTN News).- This Christmas it is particularly important to support refugees and migrants, Pope Francis said Friday, ahead of the Vatican Christmas Concert fundraiser in support of young refugee education.

“Christmas is always new because it invites us to be reborn in faith, to open ourselves to hope, to rekindle charity,” Pope Francis said in the Clementine Hall of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace Dec. 14.

“This year, in particular, calls us to reflect on the situation of many men, women and children of our time - migrants, displaced persons, and refugees - marching to escape wars, miseries caused by social injustice and climate change,” the pope continued.

Pope Francis stressed his particular concern for the “little ones” among migrants, who face dangerous situations and “long marches on foot” when they should be “sitting among the school desks, like their peers.”

“They too need training to be able to work tomorrow and participate as citizens, aware of the common good,” he commented.

The Holy Father expressed gratitude for the work of two papal charities that support young refugees in Iraq and Uganda. “Missioni Don Bosco” in Uganda and “Scholas Occurrentes” in Iraq will both receive proceeds from the Vatican Christmas Concert taking place in Vatican City’s Paul VI Hall Dec.14.

“Missioni Don Bosco” is an Italian Catholic charity supporting the education of disadvantaged youth in developing countries. Their Salesian missionaries in Uganda aid refugee families from South Sudan. One of their educational projects in the Palabek refugee camp provides vocational training to 1,500 students, who also receive one meal a day.

The Pontifical Foundation’s “Scholas Occurrentes” was founded by Bergoglio while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires as an initiative to encourage social integration and the culture of encounter through technology, arts and sports.

On Friday, Pope Francis met with young Iraqi refugees supported by “Scholas Occurrentes,” and the artists performing in the Christmas concert, and shared his message on the importance of education and solidarity.

The pope drew a direct link between the Christmas story and the needs of child refugees today. “When the violent anger of Herod struck the territory of Bethlehem, the Holy Family of Nazareth experienced the anguish of persecution, and guided by God, took refuge in Egypt,” he said.

“The little Jesus reminds us that half of the refugees of today, in the world, are children, innocent victims of human injustices,” he continued.

House passes farm bill and controversial rule on Yemen debate

Washington D.C., Dec 13, 2018 / 07:00 pm (CNA).- An agriculture bill supported by a coalition of Catholic groups passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday with bipartisan support. During debate over the bill, lawmakers also passed a controversial rule regarding debate on US involvement in Yemen.

The bill now moves to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.

The “farm bill” concerns agricultural programs and food assistance. It is renewed each year, and this process can sometimes be quite lengthy due to additions and amendments added to the bill by members of Congress.

The version of the farm bill passed Dec. 12 was a compromise that eliminated some of the more controversial aspects of an earlier version of the bill. Those controversial provisions included expanded work requirements for people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds. That bill passed the House of Representatives in June, but only had the support of Republican members.

SNAP is used by approximately 38 million Americans each year to purchase food items. Currently, able-bodied SNAP recipients who are between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have dependents under the age of six, must work or volunteer for 20 hours a week or participate in a job-training program in order to receive benefits. The proposed bill would have upped the upper age limit of this requirement to 59, but that provision was dropped in the compromise bill.

In a controversial procedural move, a mostly party-line passing vote on rules for floor debate of the farm bill also included a provision that would block legislators from forcing a vote on military aid to Saudi Arabia's intervention in the Yemeni civil war.

This effectively limits the Senate's Dec. 13 vote to withdraw military aid from Saudi Arabia to a symbolic gesture.

This amended bill passed by a vote of 369-47 in the House of Representatives, and 87-13 in the Senate. The Senate passed the bill Dec. 11.

The bill was praised by a coalition of Catholic organizations.

“Agriculture policies should promote the production and access of nutritious food for all people, using the bounty from the land God has called us to tend and steward to aid the least of our brothers and sister in this country and around the world,” read a Dec. 12 letter to the House of Representatives signed by several Catholic organizations, including the USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Charities USA.

“We are pleased that the recently released Farm Bill Conference Committee Report includes provisions that protect global and domestic nutrition programs and strengthens rural supports and employment training programs,” they added.  

The letter also stated support for the inclusion of two programs that contribute to rural development, as well as the bill’s changes to international food security programs. These changes will make the programs “more effective and allow them to serve more people.”

The Catholic coalition expressed disappointment with other parts of the bill, including subsidies to farmers and ranchers and a decrease in funding to conservation programs. Each year, one of the hotly-debated points of the farm bill concerns subsidies that are distributed to farmers, and critics of this say the money does not always go to farmers who are in need of assistance.

The farm subsidies should be “prioritized” for struggling farmers, says the letter.

“It is disappointing that the Conference report does not take modest steps to limit subsidy payments to farmers who are actively engaged in farming.”

 

 

Trial begins for priest accused of assaulting San Diego seminarian

San Diego, Calif., Dec 13, 2018 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- A trial began Tuesday for the San Diego priest accused of sexually assaulting a seminarian in February. The alleged victim testified Wednesday that the priest groped him in a restaurant bathroom.

The seminarian told the court that he and another seminarian had drinks with Fr. Juan Garcia Castillo at a bar and restaurant on Feb. 3, after an event at St. Patrick’s Parish in Carlsbad, where Castillo served as parochial vicar. He said they had several drinks, and that the priest encouraged him to drink to excess.

The seminarian testified that he went to the bathroom sick after midnight. While he was in the restroom, Castillo allegedly approached him from behind and groped his genitals, twice.

The seminarian said he told the priest to “get away.”

“I walked out of the stall, and I look at myself in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh my God, what has happened to me?’” the seminarian said, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

The alleged assault was reported to police and diocesan authorities almost immediately, sources say.

During his opening statement Dec. 12, Castillo’s attorney told a jury that there is no evidence for the seminarian’s claim.

"This is the uncorroborated word of a person who was throwing-up drunk."

"This is a 'he said/he said' where both he’s are drunk and there is no corroborating evidence," the attorney said.
 
Castillo, 35, is a member of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, a religious community of priests also known as the Eudists. He was charged in May with one count of misdemeanor sexual battery.

The seminarian told the court that he is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, an attorney and former Judge Advocate General. He entered the seminary after retiring from the Navy.

Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the Diocese of San Diego, told CNA in September that Castillo no longer has priestly faculties in the diocese.

Castillo was listed as a parish priest in the St. Patrick’s bulletin until late March, six weeks after the alleged assault, although Eckery told the San Diego Union Tribune that the priest was removed from his assignment on Feb. 4, the same day the diocese was made aware of the allegation.

Although Castillo was the subject of a criminal investigation at the time he was removed from the parish, the diocese did not disclose the circumstances of his departure to parishioners, or make any statement at the time Castillo was charged with sexual battery.

Eckery told CNA in September that the diocese did not disclose to Castillo’s parish the allegation of sexual assault because “it would be wrong for us to influence the case.”

“We need to see what happens to the criminal case because the issue of consent is so important and if it’s not clear, we wait for that to get made clear,” he added.

The diocese would not explain the priest’s removal from ministry to the parish where he served, Eckery told CNA, without trying first to determine if an act of sexual misconduct took place, and whether any sexual act was “non-consensual.”

Castillo was born in Honduras, and in 2011 was ordained a priest at St. Patrick’s Parish by Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa.

A spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office told CNA in September that if he is convicted, Castillo could face up to six months of incarceration, and be listed on California’s sex offender registry.