Remember the glove? Remember the glove that didn’t fit?
If you’re old enough to remember the OJ Simpson trial, the so called trial of the century in the US back in 1994, you’ll remember the glove that didn’t fit.
OJ – the Juice – the famous footballer, was on trial for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. And it looked in so many ways that he was guilty. Remember the almost spoof slow car chase with the cops trying to get OJ to pull over?
The trial divided a nation. Many Black Americans saw it as an opportunity, if OJ walked, to stick it to the man, given the many grievances they’d been subjected to from law enforcement down the decades.
And a lot of the evidence stacked up. A lot of the circumstances fitted. Except the glove didn’t fit. There were other question marks about the trial, but it was the famous glove that captured peoples’ attention, so visual an item it was. The blood-stained glove worn by the murderer didn’t fit OJ Simpson’s hand.
I remember watching on TV as the jury read out “not guilty” – the screams, the groans, the euphoria. And I remember sensing that justice had not been done, and much of that centred around the dubious assertion that “the glove didn’t fit”.
This week before a court in Victoria, the senior most cleric ever in the Catholic Church to be charged with child sexual abuse offences, Cardinal George Pell, was publicly convicted of the aforementioned crimes. A jury of twelve of his peers came to that conclusion after a trial that was the opposite of the open slather, live-to-air debacle that was OJ Simpson’s trial.
Unlike the decision for OJ, the jury came down with a conviction for Pell. But not before one of the primary pieces of evidence, the fact that the vestments he was wearing at the time would preclude “an erect penis” from being exposed to commit the crimes he was accused of in the place and manner he was accused of them.
I am no fan of journalist David Marr, he’s pompous, self-righteous and a dreadful snob. But he’s on the money when he describes what Father Frank Brennan wrote in Eureka Street magazine as “unedifying”. Brennan wrote:
Witnesses familiar with liturgical vestments had been called who gave compelling evidence that it was impossible to produce an erect penis through a seamless alb. An alb is a long robe, worn under a heavier chasuble. It is secured and set in place by a cincture which is like a tightly drawn belt. An alb cannot be unbuttoned or unzipped, the only openings being small slits on the side to allow access to trouser pockets underneath. The complainant’s initial claim to police was that Pell had parted his vestments, but an alb cannot be parted; it is like a seamless dress. Later the complainant said that Pell moved the vestments to the side. An alb secured with a cincture cannot be moved to the side. The police never inspected the vestments during their investigations, nor did the prosecution show that the vestments could be parted or moved to the side as the complainant had alleged. The proposition that the offences charged were committed immediately after Mass by a fully robed archbishop in the sacristy with an open door and in full view from the corridor seemed incredible to my mind.
While this does leave some questions, I’ve been concerned by the rush of Christians to see this as the equivalent of “the glove that didn’t fit”, as if somehow this proves that the system was weighted against Pell from the start. Brennan’s assertion that the offence, given the circumstances as he sees them, seemed “incredible” should be treated with caution.
Why? Because it also seemed incredible that actor Kevin Spacey would sit on the lounge of a friend of his and actually sexually assault that man’s son while sitting there. But he did. It also seemed incredible that entertainer Rolf Harris would sit in a BBC radio studio for an interview, then brazenly grope a young girl before signing an autograph for her. But he did. It also seemed incredible that the famed and feared UK BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile would do tours of the hospitals he was raising charity funds for and sexually assault young girls in their beds while the nurses were nearby on duty. But he did.
It only seems incredible to us because these actions were simply the full flowerings of increasingly emboldened actions that these powerful men had gotten away with. The argument that sexual assaults on young children only takes place after long periods of grooming and in isolation is a myth, and the actions of these men – all powerful men – proved it.
So I urge caution. I urge the Facebook angsters not to let their words run away from them and take them to places they may later regret in their defence of Pell/Christian civilisation.
For many Christians Pell, and indeed his conviction, is being seen as a symbol of a greater struggle between a hard secularism that is seeking to squeeze Christianity to the margins, and a religious population that is feeling stitched up. They see the baying crowds and the likes of Marr and entertainer/comedian Tim Minchin as implacably opposed to their faith, and indeed keen to shut down any public square expression of it, and then they read that into the judicial system. We should be very cautious about doing that.
In short it’s in danger of being rewritten in a revisionist manner. It’s in danger of being likened to the manner in which many black people saw the OJ Simpson trial – a trial about the state of play in our nation, and the desire for many secularists to eclipse the Christian faith. Well for a start Black America did not have a seat at the table in OJ’s day, and saw his dubious acquittal as a turning point. Us? We’ve had a seat at the table for a long time, and the problem was that people of the ilk of Pell (think convicted paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale) couldn’t keep their hands where people could see them.
This isn’t about Pell. This isn’t about the church per se, though there are serious questions to ask. This is ultimately about a victim who wanted justice and cried out for it, without any desire to work an angle or state an agenda. He simply wanted justice. And our court system played that out in trying circumstances.
So let’s leave aside the culture warriors and their desires for the decline of the church (a job we can do well enough without their help) and think of that unnamed man who says that his life was wrecked by this abuse. We should be very cautious not to dismiss what the court found to be a credible witness, especially in light of the fact that thousands of sexual abuse cases – across many churches and traditions – have been disbelieved or shunted to the side for the sake of convenience for so long.
None of which is to say that Pell is simply being used as a scapegoat for others sins. Once again he has been convicted by a jury after a trial process that had none of the sensational public emotion of the Simpson trial.
This might be the time for the church – whatever denomination – to stop, listen and lament, and confess that our own view of how deep sin actually goes into our lives is clearly not adequate enough to explain the sins we are actually committing collectively, especially if our primary defence states that such sins – which God labels as scarlet – are merely “vanilla.”