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UPDATED: Australian High Court refers Cardinal Pell's appeal of sex abuse conviction

Melbourne, Australia, Nov 13, 2019 / 07:15 am (CNA).- The Australian High Court announced Wednesday that Cardinal George Pell's application for special leave to appeal has been refferred to the full court for decision. Pell is seeking to appeal an August decision by the Court of Appeal in Victoria to uphold his conviction for child sexual abuse.

His application will now be considered by all the members of Australia's highest court, and a decision is expected in March or April.

Pell’s appeal to the High Court in Canberra, Australia’s supreme court, is his last legal avenue to overturn a conviction which has divided opinion in the country and internationally.

Responding to the decision, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney said he "welcomed" the progress of the case at the High Court.

"The Cardinal has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so," Fisher said. "The divided judgment of the Court of Appeal reflects the divided opinion amongst jurors, legal commentators and within our community." 

"For the sake of all involved in this case, I hope that the appeal will be heard as soon as possible," Fisher said on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, the Vatican also issued a statement "reiterating its trust in the Australian justice system." 

"The Holy See acknowledges the decision of Australia’s High Court to accept Card. George Pell’s request of appeal, aware that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence," the statement said.

"At this time, the Holy See reaffirms once again its closeness to those who have suffered because of sexual abuse on the part of members of the clergy."

The cardinal was convicted Dec. 11, 2018, on five charges that he sexually abused two choir boys after Sunday Mass while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and 1997.

He was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he must serve at least three years and eight months before being eligible to apply for parole.

The cardinal, 78, who remains an archbishop and a member of the College of Cardinals, was returned to prison immediately after court adjourned. He has been held in solitary confinement and has not been permitted to celebrate Mass in prison.

Pell was convicted of exposing himself and forcing two choir boys to commit sex acts while fully vested in his Sunday Mass garb, almost immediately after Mass in the priests’ sacristy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. Pell was at that time Archbishop of Melbourne. He was also convicted of fondling one of the boys in a corridor in 1997.

The prosecution rested on the testimony of one of the alleged victims— the one reported to have suffered two instances of abuse by Pell. The other victim died in 2014 and was unable to testify, but in 2001 had denied to his mother that any abuse occurred while he was a member of the choir.

Pell has maintained his innocence, with his defense making central the argument that the alleged crimes would have been, under the circumstances, “simply impossible.”

The cardinal’s defenders have contended that the sacristy abuse allegations are not possible given the high traffic after Mass and the obstructing nature of the Mass vestments.

Pell had appealed to the Court of Appeal in Victoria. Three judges considered his case and dismissed his procedural appeal. The judges were divided on Pell’s primary ground of appeal, that the decision of the jury was “unreasonable.”

At particular issue was the question of whether the jury which convicted Pell had properly weighed all of the evidence presented in his defense, or reached the determination of guilt despite the demonstration of clear “reasonable doubt” that he committed the crimes with which he was charged.

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Court President Chris Maxwell formed the majority in favor of rejecting Pell’s appeal that the jury verdict was unreasonable on the evidence presented, finding that it was open to the jury to find beyond “reasonable doubt about the truth of the complainant's account.”

In an extensive dissent from the majority finding, Justice Mark Weinberg noted that the entirety of the evidence against Pell consisted of the testimony of a single accuser, whereas more than 20 witnesses were produced to testify against his narrative.

“Even the ‘reasonable possibility’ that what the witnesses who testified to these matters may have been true must inevitably have led to an acquittal,” Weinberg wrote, concluding that Pell had, in effect, been improperly asked to establish the “impossibility” of his guilt and not merely reasonable doubt.

All three judges granted further leave to appeal on the ground of the unreasonableness of the jury’s conviction.

Media commentators and members of the Australian legal community have voiced concerns about the reasoning of the two-judge majority opinion and the wider implications its argumentation could have for standards of evidence in criminal trials.

Holy See press office director Matteo Bruni responded to the Court of Appeal decision at the time by saying that “the Holy See acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal,” while reiterating its “respect for the Australian judicial system.”

“As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court,” Bruni said at the time.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Cardinal Pell's petition for leave to appeal had been "granted" rather than "referred" to the full court for decision. 
 

Pope Francis denounces rise in anti-Semitism 

Vatican City, Nov 13, 2019 / 04:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis denounced rising anti-Semitism Wednesday as an attitude that is inhumane and unchristian.

"The Jewish people have suffered so much in history … And, in the last century, we saw so many brutalities on the Jewish people and we thought that this was over,” Pope Francis said in St. Peter’s Square Nov. 13.

“Today the practice of persecuting the Jews has begun again here and there. Brothers and sisters, this is neither human nor Christian. The Jewish people are our brothers, and they should not be persecuted,” the pope said in a departure from his prepared remarks.

Anti-Semitic violence and harassment has been on the rise in Europe, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

In October, a man with anti-Semitic beliefs shot and killed two people at a synagogue in Germany on Yom Kippur, and last year a far-right extremist attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people.  Other deadly attacks on a Jewish supermarket and a school in France in recent years were linked to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.

The pope’s comments were a part of his reflection on the Biblical account of the expulsion of the Jewish people from Rome by Emperor Claudius in the first century.

The Acts of the Apostles describes how this order affected a married couple, Priscilla and Aquila, who were forced to move from Rome to Corinth.

Pope Francis praised Priscilla and Aquila as Biblical models of married life, hospitality, and lay evangelization.

“These spouses prove to have a heart full of faith in God and generous towards others, capable of making room for those who, like them, experience the condition of a foreigner,” he said.

By welcoming Paul into their home in Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla also welcomed the Gospel of Christ, the pope said. “From that moment their home is imbued with the fragrance of the living Word that vivifies the hearts.”

The home of Priscilla and Aquila became a “house church” for the local Christian community to listen to the Word of God and celebrate the Eucharist, Francis said.

“Even today in some countries where there is no religious freedom and there is no freedom for Christians, Christians gather in a home, some hidden, to pray and celebrate the Eucharist. Even today there are these houses, these families that become a temple for the Eucharist,” the pope added.

In his ongoing weekly catechesis on the Acts of the Apostles, Pope Francis described how Aquila and Priscilla traveled with Paul on a missionary journey to Ephesus, and later returned to Rome.

The pope noted that this married couple were among the recipients of Paul’s letter to the Romans, where St. Paul described them as “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks to save my life.”

“How many families in times of persecution risk their necks to keep the persecuted hidden,” the pope added. “This is the first example: family hospitality, even in bad times.”

Pope Francis prayed, asking God to “pour out his Spirit on all Christian couples so that, following the example of Aquila and Priscilla, they will be able to open the doors of their hearts to Christ and to their brothers and transform their homes into domestic churches.”

“A house is a domestic church, in which to live communion and offer the worship of a life lived in faith, hope and charity. We must pray to these two saints Aquila and Priscilla, so that they teach our families to be like them,” Pope Francis said.

This Japanese painter found the faith through sacred art

Rome, Italy, Nov 13, 2019 / 03:01 am (CNA).- Osamu Giovanni Micico had never read the Bible, knew nothing of the stories of Christ in the gospels, and had never heard of the apostles, when his experience studying sacred art in Italy brought him to the Catholic faith.

“When I came to Italy, painting was the only street for me as far as my profession goes. Thank God, that is also where God gave me my spiritual rebirth,” Micico told CNA.

Catholicism “transformed my life. The way I relate to others, the way I view the world. And the direction I’m taking in my life. The meaning of suffering. It all changed. My conversion gave life to death.”

From his childhood and adolescence in Tokyo, Micico was interested in drawing and painting, but he originally pursued a science-based career to please his parents.

During university, however, he encountered an artist who inspired him to pursue his passion for painting.

The 37-year-old artist moved to Florence in 2008 to study the paintings of the Old Masters, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

He told CNA that at the time he mostly painted landscapes or portraits, except when he copied the great masterpieces to learn from them. But he did not know what he was looking at.

“I was with my Catholic friend, asking my friend, who are those fishermen?” the artist said. In a way, he noted, he encountered the gospel the same way it was encountered by people in the Middle Ages who could not read, through the symbols of art.

“I was ‘reading’ those paintings before I knew the gospel. I didn’t know what stories they represented,” he explained.

“I think like music, those paintings spoke to me with harmony and it animated my soul. It was not just technique – that they made a realistic painting – but there was something else that was very holy there.”

Another personal encounter was influential in Micico’s conversion: his friendship with Irish religious artist and Catholic Dany MacManus, who was then living in Florence.

While Micico still knew nothing about the Bible, MacManus invited him to a lecture he was giving on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. “That left an impression,” Micico said.

MacManus became Micico’s godfather at his baptism in 2010.

“Art was the entrance. I think that even without words, like with the music of Bach, one can intuit the beauty of a creator,” he said. “Ultimately, God the merciful was represented in the painting ... That’s what spoke to me.”

Micico now creates sacred art himself.

“I wanted to spread this Good News using the same medium,” he said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who will be touched by contemporary sacred art. And if I can give my hand to this beautiful mission, by my profession, that’s fantastic. It was very natural.”

In November 2018, one of Micico’s paintings was gifted to the Archdiocese of Nagasaki. Micico’s “Holy Mother of Sorrow and Hope” was hung in Nagasaki's Immaculate Conception Cathedral in the Marian chapel, which is dedicated to the victims of the 1945 atomic bomb.

It shows Our Lady of Sorrow in the foreground, with the background depicting the exploding atomic bomb and the burning city beneath.



“I experienced that painting can be an instrument, very useful, very strong,” the painter said. “And it goes directly to the heart, like music. Even without understanding it people can stand in front of it with mouth wide open, looking at it, contemplating it.”

After his conversion, Micico learned more about the history of Christian persecution in Japan. Christianity was outlawed starting around 1600 until 1873. In the late 16th century, military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi expelled the missionaries who had brought the faith to Japan, had religious objects and Bibles destroyed. There were thousands of martyrs.

The few Catholic lay people who survived preserved the faith orally and through baptism, the only sacrament they had, for hundreds of years. During this period, they created their own sacred art, Micico said.

Some pieces were visibly religious, such as “Ecce Homo” style images of Christ. In many others, however, the Christian symbolism, for safety, was hidden in a Buddhist or Shinto style. For example, they would paint a traditional Buddhist female figure, but add a baby to her arms to create an image of the Madonna and Christ child.

“This clandestine art is so beautiful to see, as their devotion took form in this visible form,” Micico said.

“When I think of myself in that situation, I think, why would someone risk their life by painting sacred pictures? I mean, it would have been easier for them to survive without painting those pictures, but they wanted to manifest their love for the Lord.”

“Sacred art,” he said, “is not for one person, or one group of people, but for everybody, for all the generations.”

Chilean churches looted during protests

Santiago, Chile, Nov 12, 2019 / 11:01 pm (CNA).- Several churches across Chile have been attacked and looted amid anti-government protests in the country.

The demonstrations began in mid-October in Santiago over a now-suspended increase in subway fares.
Other regions joined in the protests, expanding their grievances to inequality and the cost of healthcare.

Protesters broke into Santiago's La Asuncion parish Nov. 8, hauling out pews, confessionals, and statues – which they defaced – to build a barricade. They set the barricade on fire before clashing with police, and sprayed anti-Catholic graffiti on the walls, pillars, and altar of the church.

The next day, the Chilean bishops said that “with many Chileans we are radically opposed to injustice and to violence, we condemn them in all their forms and we hope that the tribunals will identify those responsible and sanction them.”

“The violent protesters only prevent us from looking with due attention to the just claims of the majority of the Chilean people who yearn for real and peaceful solutions … the people are not only tired of injustice, of also of violence, and the great majority hope for dialogue with respect to the reconstruction of the social fabric.”

On Nov. 10, attackers in Talca forced open the doors of the Mary Help of Christians shrine, where they destroyed religious  images and then carried them into the streets along with the church's pews to set them on fire and erect barricades. Before the Carabineros de Chile arrived at the scene, the attackers desecrated the tabernacle.

At a Nov. 12 press conference, Fr. Pedro Pablo Cuello, director of the Salesian presence in Talca, said that “Chile needs to grow, needs to be reconciled, with peace, with justice and equity … This is a desecration of the very face of Jesus.”

Bishop Galo Fernández Villaseca, auxiliary bishop of Santiago and apostolic administrator of Talca, said he was “impacted and moved by the violence one is experiencing which is intensifying  in the country and among us. These are not just material damages, it's an attitude of discord and which attacks the deepest sentiments of a person, our religious sentiments. The desecration of the Blessed Sacrament hurts us deeply.”

“It hurts me that the soul of Chile is wounded, is incapable of dialogue, that the soul of Chile claiming legitimate things that we share to a great extent, is walking down a path that is counterproductive,” Bishop  Fernández said.

He encouraged the practice of “peace, dialogue, to value what is true in the different person and to walk down a path that means progress for all women and men in Chile.”

The Salesian community in turn asked that Chileans “seek peace and the ways of understanding and dialogue … convinced that the great challenge of every society is to achieve a good integration in which all people have a decent life, especially the elderly and children.”

“It's a matter of respecting one another, of working together. We all want to build a new Chile, a Chile truly just and solidary and we will continue working according to our responsibilities as priests and as a Salesian School,” they said.

Bishop Fernández said a Mass of reparation in the church Nov. 12.

Also on Nov. 10, a mob attacked Our Lady of the Angels parish in Viña del Mar, immediately northeast of Valparaiso.

The attackers pulled out statues of Saint Expeditus and Saint Teresa of the Andes from their glass enclosures and destroyed them. They also destroyed some stained glass windows and other windows, sprayed graffiti, and tried to enter the church.  

“This violent action hurts us deeply since the Shrine of Saint Expeditus has always been a refuge for those who suffer and need a place of peace and hope. Not only has a sacred image been broken, but also the home has been violated that welcomes thousands of pilgrims who with faith give over their yearnings and hopes,” the parish said.

Along with expressing their support for the legitimate demands of society, the parish condemned the vandalism and violence and said it is “time for a true constructive dialogue and to seek paths of unity for all of us who live in this land.”

In recent days, the Cathedral of St. James in Valparaiso and Saint Teresa of the Andes parish in Punta Arenas have also been attacked.

More than 20 people have been killed in the protests. Many of the protests are peaceful, but some have included looting and arson, and attacks on public and private property, national heritage buildings, and churches. More than 7,000 demonstrators have been arrested.

President Sebastian Pinera replaced several cabinet ministers last month, but it did not sate the protesters.

Amid NY officials' legal threats, Christian adoption agency gets chance for appeal

New York City, N.Y., Nov 12, 2019 / 10:01 pm (CNA).- New Hope Family Services, a Christian non-profit, is defending its long-standing child placement program from New York state officials who say it must shut down if it does not place children with same-sex and unmarried couples.

It is appealing a U.S. district court’s dismissal of its lawsuit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has temporarily halted action against the agency until its appeal can be heard.

“Every child deserves a permanent home with loving parents,” Roger Brooks, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group, said Nov. 5. “New Hope’s faith-based services do nothing to interfere with other adoption providers, but banishing it means fewer kids will find permanent homes, fewer adoptive parents will ever welcome their new child, and fewer birth parents will enjoy the exceptional support that New Hope has offered for decades.”

“We hope the court will permanently uphold New Hope’s ability to serve children and families according to the very beliefs that motivate its valuable services,” said Brooks, whose legal group is representing the agency.

New Hope Family Services said it has placed over 1,000 children in New York. It operates a pregnancy resource center and a foster placement agency. In accord with its beliefs, the agency only places children with married men and women.

Its lawsuit charged that New York state officials ordered the agency to change its child placement policy or submit a close-out plan.

State officials are “actively demanding that such ministries, including New Hope, violate their religious convictions and say things that they believe to be false — or shut their doors,” its lawsuit said. It objects that New York state has never changed adoption laws to require the placement of children with couples other than an adult husband and wife, Courthouse News Service reported in May.

According to the lawsuit, officials with the New York Office of Children and Family Services who made a site visit to the agency initially praised it for showing “a number of strengths in providing adoption services within the community.”

State officials later reviewed New Hope’s policy and procedures manual and allegedly singled out its policy on child placements. The officials described the policy as “discriminatory and impermissible.”

The attorneys said the agency refers couples it cannot serve to other providers and has received no formal complaints.

In May, U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino dismissed the agency’s lawsuit. She said Christian agencies are free to believe that unmarried or same-sex couples are unfit parents but cannot prohibit such couples from adopting without running afoul of laws barring discrimination, Courthouse News Service reported.

“While religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemptions from neutral, generally applied legal requirements,” she said.

While the agency argued that it faced discrimination based on its religious beliefs, the judge said the law was not discriminatory because it applied to any adoption service and did not single out the agency or Christian agencies.

“The fact that New Hope’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that OCFS’s decision to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs,” she said.

She said the agency is not being forced to state that it approves of non-married or same-sex couples. The state agency “is not prohibiting New Hope’s ongoing ministry in any way or compelling it to change the message it wishes to convey.”

In the judge’s view, the New York adoption statute was not drafted to interfere with any agency’s religious expression.

However, New York state rules have already forced the adoption and foster services of Catholic Charities of Buffalo to close because the rules do not allow the agency to maintain its practice of only placing children in homes with a married mother and father. The agency had been providing such services almost since it began more than 90 years ago.

“Because Catholic Charities cannot simultaneously comply with state regulations and conform to the teaching of the Catholic Church on the nature of marriage, Catholic Charities will discontinue foster care and adoption services,” the agency said in August 2018.

Long-standing Catholic and other Christian child placement agencies have been forced to close due to new laws or policies that considered their practices discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation. March 2006 marked the end of adoption services for Catholic Charities of Boston and the end of adoption services of Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois came in November 2011.

In 2018, the city of Philadelphia stopped placing adoptive children with Catholic Social Services, only days after calling for 300 new families to adopt foster children. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to review the case in mid-November.

On Nov. 1 the Trump Administration announced a change to federal rules to preserve federal funding of faith-based adoption agencies, regardless of their views on same-sex marriage.

The Department of Health and Human Services said it would revise a 2016 rule that required federally-funded child welfare agencies to place children with same-sex couples.