This week was a terrible one for faithful Catholics across the country, but particularly in Victoria and New South Wales.
Contrary to popular opinion and in opposition to apparent common sense, two out of three of the appellant judges ruled to not overturn Cardinal Pell’s guilty verdict.
This came as a shock and a blow, and I’ve just been feeling really flat for the past couple of days.
I know Cardinal Pell, I’ve known him since I was a child; I was present at his installation as Archbishop of Sydney, and lived there under his bishopric, during which time he oversaw a complete overhaul and flourishing of Catholic life in the city.
Aside from the fact that I have no doubt of his innocence, all the evidence was in his favour – the only thing against him was the uncorroborated and unsupported testimony of one man.
George Weigel put it succinctly in this piece in First Things:
…this astonishing, indeed incomprehensible, decision calls into the gravest doubt the quality of justice in Australia—and the possibility of any Catholic cleric charged with sexual abuse to receive a fair trial or a fair consideration of the probity of his trial.
In the live-streamed appellate court proceedings on the morning of August 21 (Melbourne time), Victoria Supreme Court chief justice Anne Ferguson, reading the decision, made persistent reference to “the whole of the evidence.” But there has never been any “evidence” that Cardinal Pell did what he was alleged to have done. There was only the word of the complainant, and there was absolutely no corroboration of his charges—which, in the months since the cardinal’s trials, have been shown to be alarmingly similar to a fake set of charges leveled against a priest in a story published years ago in Rolling Stone.
Judge Ferguson also referred to the “uncertain memory” of the “opportunity witnesses” who testified on the cardinal’s behalf, to the effect that the acts of sexual abuse alleged to have been committed simply could not have happened given the circumstances of a cathedral full of people, the brief time frame of the alleged acts, and the cardinal’s vesture. But what, one must ask, about the potentially “uncertain” memory of the complainant? Why is it simply assumed, on the basis of his videotaped testimony, that the complainant has a clear memory of what he alleged to have happened—especially when the entire scenario of the alleged abuse is implausible in the extreme?
In justifying her judgment and that of the colleague … she and Judge Chris Maxwell—took a “different view of the facts” than dissenting Judge Mark Weinberg. But what facts? Does the simple assertion of an alleged act of sexual abuse, no matter how implausible as to the nature of the act or the circumstances in which it was alleged to have been committed, constitute a legal “fact” capable of destroying the life and reputation of one of Australia’s most distinguished citizens? If so, then there is something seriously wrong with criminal law in the state of Victoria, where legal process now bears a parlous resemblance to what prevailed in the Soviet Union under Stalin. There, too, charges were deemed plausible solely on uncorroborated assertion.
The cardinal’s appeal failed to convince Judges Ferguson and Maxwell that the convicting jury must have had doubts about the plausibility of the charges against Pell, given the devastating case the defense raised against the prosecution at both of the cardinal’s trials. But why is this the appropriate or relevant standard? A deadlocked jury at the first trial voted overwhelmingly to acquit the cardinal of the charges; then the retrial swung almost 180 degrees and returned a unanimous verdict of guilty, after presumably considering the same evidence on which the majority of their predecessors voted to acquit. Doesn’t that suggest the possibility of deep jury bias—especially given the lack of defense challenges to jurors in the state of Victoria? And doesn’t that call into question the probity of the guilty verdict?
Two and a half months ago, at Cardinal Pell’s appeal hearing, Judges Ferguson, Maxwell, and Weinberg aggressively queried the Crown representative defending the guilty verdict, whose performance, by any objective standard, was exceptionally weak. By contrast, the appellate panel gave every indication during the appeal hearing of taking seriously the defense’s insistence that the guilty verdict against Cardinal Pell was “unsafe,” in that it could not have been reasonably arrived at on the evidence at hand (or, in this case, the lack thereof). What happened in the ensuing two months? That will certainly be worth exploring in the weeks ahead.
Since the Pell conviction, friends well connected in Australian legal circles have said that the serious legal community in Australia, as distinguished from ideologues, was becoming deeply concerned about the reputation of Australian justice; thus, it was said, many of those senior legal figures were hoping that the cardinal’s appeal would succeed. Their concerns should now be intensified by orders of magnitude. For on the evidence of this shabby case and this appalling and thoroughly unpersuasive appellate decision, reasonable people will wonder just what “rule of law” means in Australia, and especially in the state of Victoria. Reasonable people will wonder whether it’s safe to travel, or do business, in a social and political climate in which mob hysteria similar to that which sent Alfred Dreyfus to Devil’s Island can manifestly affect juries.
Cardinal Pell has said to friends in recent months that he knows he is innocent and that “the only judgment I fear is the last one.” The judges who concurred in a grotesque appellate decision confirming the result of a grotesque legal farce may or may not believe in a final judgment. But they certainly have other judgments to worry about. For they have confirmed that a once-admirable part of the Anglosphere known for independent thinking has become something quite ignoble, even sinister.
One line that I want to highlight is this:
Does the simple assertion of an alleged act of sexual abuse, no matter how implausible as to the nature of the act or the circumstances in which it was alleged to have been committed, constitute a legal “fact” capable of destroying the life and reputation of one of Australia’s most distinguished citizens?
I think this is key, for what does this mean for the future of the Church – for our priests and other religious leaders? Setting this kind of precedent seems, to me, not only wrong but dangerous, not to mention scary.
So what happens next? According to most news sources, the cardinal’s legal team will now pursue an appeal before the High Court. This will be Pell’s last chance to have his conviction overturned, and I pray that it will be, that justice be served.
It has been a dark couple of weeks for Australia, with the legalisation of abortion on demand until birth looming over the heads of everyone in NSW at the moment as it’s debated in parliament.
I’m pleased to say that the people here have been fighting back hard on this one, with an estimated 10,000 people turning up to a pro-life rally in Sydney on Tuesday night to protest the bill.
It was an amazing night, with an electric atmosphere that affected everyone present. I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of such a huge, united cohort. It was definitely the bright spot of hope in an otherwise dark period.
Update: I received this email from a reader:
(The Pell case) reminded me of a similar case made against the Anglican bishop, George Bell, whose reputation had previously been impeccable (he worked with the likes of Deitrich Bonhoeffer in fighting the Nazi regime, and always insisted on humble acts such as travelling in third class train carriages at a time when it would have been unthinkable to most people that an RC or CofE prelate would locomote thus); the basis of his generally accepted retraction, as with Cardinal Pell, was one unfounded and improbable allegation made many years in the past. It is interesting that both churches have tended, in recent decades, to defame those whose have been effective, faithful and traditional in their lives and episcopacies. Within your own church, it seems to be the lavender mafia, clown ‘Mass’, pro homosexual ‘marriage’ types etc who have most egregiously debauched and deprived themselves, and yet the onus of blame-ful ire tends towards the traditionalist victims of false and unverified allegations.