The Strange Case against Cardinal Pell

Cardinal George Pell in Australia, October 6, 2017 (Mark Dadswell/Reuters)
Where is the evidence?

Lady Justice wears a blindfold. She holds a sword in one hand and scales in the other. She is a product of ancient Rome but stands as a potent symbol in our modern age of “your truth,” “my truth” — and nothing but those truths, so help us all.

This week, Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his conviction of “historic sexual abuse” was rejected by a vote of 2–1 at Victoria’s supreme court. Still blindfolded, Lady Justice might very well be shaking her head. The dissenting justice, Mark Weinberg, had reservations. He warned of a “significant possibility” that Pell is innocent, explaining that he found it “impossible to accept” the sole accuser’s testimony, which, uncorroborated, may have been “concocted.” From Justice Weinberg’s judgment:

[From] the complainant’s evidence, it can be seen that there was ample material upon which his account could be legitimately subject to criticism. There were inconsistencies, and discrepancies, and a number of his answers simply made no sense. . . .

An unusual feature of this case was that it depended entirely upon the complainant being accepted, beyond reasonable doubt, as a credible and reliable witness. Yet the jury were invited to accept his evidence without there being any independent support for it.

Weinberg explained that, on these grounds, after assessing the prosecution’s case at the previous trial, he would have acquitted the cardinal of all charges. Pell is expected to appeal next to the High Court of Australia, which could overturn earlier verdicts. Otherwise, he will serve six years behind bars.

So, what is the case against him?

In short, Pell was accused of having sexually abused two choristers immediately after a 10:30 a.m. Sunday Mass, in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne in the 1990s, when he was serving as archbishop of Melbourne. At the time of the alleged attack, Pell was dressed in full vestments; the sacristy door was open; the master of ceremonies, the sacristan, the altar servers, and the concelebrating priests had all disappeared and remained out of sight for the full duration (ten minutes or so) of the attack. No one saw or heard anything to corroborate the primary complainant’s account. And the second complainant, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014, denied that the abuse ever occurred, according to his mother.

Louise Milligan, author of the axe-grinding book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, had a different emphasis in her recent report for ABC News. “The other choirboy remained silent about what George Pell did to them until his friend’s death,” she wrote. “Then, four years ago, with private and resolute determination told his truth to Victoria Police” (emphasis added).

His truth, Ms. Milligan? What about the truth?

For those forgetful of the particulars of the Pell case, permit me to briefly recap.

In March 2013, more than a year before any complaints were filed against Pell, Victoria police began their “Operation Tethering,” soliciting any “information” regarding inappropriate contact with minors at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. No crime had been reported. Requests for information were advertised in the local press.

In early 2017, the police told Pell that there were, as yet, no allegations. A few months later, they alerted him to forthcoming charges. Of his own volition, Pell traveled from the Vatican back to Australia to defend his innocence.

In March 2018, a pretrial “committal hearing” of four weeks ensued. At the end of it, the magistrate permitted the case to go to trial. Significantly: A court injunction prevented the nature of the accusations, the development of the case, or even the verdict from being discussed by the Australian media. Also significantly: That did not prevent widespread speculation and character assassinations from appearing in the press, influencing public perception and likely prejudicing the jury.

The first jury trial, in October 2018, resulted in a hung jury, meaning that the jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Witnesses who attended Pell’s trial said that the jury had voted overwhelmingly, 10–2, voted for Pell’s acquittal. Despite this, prosecution decided to go ahead with a second trial. It took place in December 2018. The new jury found Pell guilty of five charges of sexual abuse of minors.

But don’t serious accusations require equally serious review? Don’t they, in other words, require evidence? For those seeking revenge against institutionalized sexual abuse — in the Catholic Church, on the casting couch, in the culture at large — perhaps this is insignificant. Perhaps if a person is male, or conservative, or a Catholic priest, he should be considered guilty until proven innocent. But in a criminal court? If the function of law is to determine the truth and to deliver justice — note: this is distinct from the function of a Church tribunal or congressional hearing (e.g. Brett Kavanaugh’s), which, for the additional purpose of assessing a person’s suitability to a leadership role, weighs (even low-evidenced) accusations against concerns such as safeguarding and moral character — then the Pell case shows how profoundly dysfunctional the Australian legal system is.

A man was accused of a serious assault, denied it outright, and — on the basis of the accusation alone; an accusation described as outlandish by the dissenting judge — is now behind bars.

George Weigel, who has also written about the case here at NRO, writes at First Things that “for the moment, 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.” Catholic clerics, yes. But also, anyone.

The stubborn questions remain. Beyond his accuser’s account, what evidence was presented against Pell? Where were the facts, established and proven beyond reasonable doubt? Like the blindfolded Lady Justice, they are, in this strange case, unnervingly absent.


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