Law & the Courts

Cardinal George Pell Walks Free

Vatican Treasurer Cardinal George Pell is surrounded leaves the Melbourne Magistrates Court in Australia, October 6, 2017. (Mark Dadswell/Reuters)
It is unjust to conflate the collective failure of an institution with a specific set of charges against an individual.

On Monday, the High Court of Australia unanimously overturned Cardinal George Pell’s conviction for historic child sexual abuse, outlining “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”

Pell was accused of having sexually assaulted two men (one of whom is now deceased) in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne when they were 13-year-old choirboys and he the archbishop. Pell denied all allegations outright. His first trial ended in a hung jury. But in December 2018, a second jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to six years in prison, a year of which he has already served in solitary confinement. Pell appealed the decision but in August 2019 the convictions were upheld, two to one, by the Court of Appeal .

Mark Weinberg, the dissenting justice on the Court of Appeal, noted concerning “inconsistencies and discrepancies” in the complainant’s testimony, which the jury had been “invited to accept” despite the absence of “any independent support.” Weinberg further warned that Pell’s innocence remained a “significant possibility.” Yesterday the High Court agreed, stating:

The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that their verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place. . .

The High Court considered that . . . [the Court of Appeal majority] failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt.

It is worth pointing out that the High Court is notoriously hesitant to overturn jury decisions. In order to do so, it has to believe that the jury has committed an error in the way it arrived at its conclusion. In other words, the court must conclude that the jury’s process was faulty, not just that its conclusion was “wrong.” The High Court explains with its use of the phrase “acting rationally on the whole of the evidence.” Instead of, say, acting emotionally on the testimony of a single witness. Which would appear to be exactly what happened.

Published in 2017, Australia’s five-year Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse found “catastrophic failures of leadership of the Catholic Church authorities over many decades.” During the course of the investigation, 15,000 people alleged abuse, and 2,500 cases were referred on to the police. According to the report, the Church’s internal response to allegations had been “remarkably and disturbingly similar,” amounting to a sinister combination of denial, incompetence, and cover-up. The commission estimated that of priests working in Australia between 1950 and 2009, 7 percent had been accused of child sex abuse.

But despicable though these crimes undoubtedly were and are, it is unjust to conflate the collective failure of an institution with a specific set of charges against an individual. The only question that ought to matter in the Pell case is Did he do it? His accuser claims he did. But on being released, Pell said the High Court’s decision “was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of pedophilia in the church. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”

Others disagree that that was the point. For instance, Australia’s former prime minister, Julia Gillard, took to Twitter to say that the decision raised “some pretty big questions.” Such as “Did we learn as a nation from the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse?” and “Is it worth survivors coming forward to seek justice?” Of course, those struggling with recovery from sexual abuse deserve both compassion and justice. But so, too, do the accused who are — lest we forget at our peril — innocent until proven guilty. That’s why Pope Francis offered Mass this morning for those who suffer on account of unjust sentences when the principles of justice are dispensed with and an individual is scapegoated for some collective sin (a story Christians, of course, are familiar with and will commemorate this Friday).

No doubt the Pell ordeal isn’t over. No doubt the trial-by-media will increase its ferocity. But though we are, of course, entitled to our doubts about the cardinal’s innocence, the High Court was ultimately correct to assert that, when faced with the evidence, the jury, “acting rationally,” ought to have had doubts about his guilt.

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