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Now Reading: Is Cardinal Pell’s Release Really “Justice At Last”?
10 months ago
At 10:11am on April 7, 2020, the High Court of Australia delivered its unanimous decision to overturn Cardinal George Pell’s convictions for child sex abuse.
Pell is the previous head of the Catholic Church is Australia and the highest-ranking Vatican official to ever be charged for child sex abuse. He’s also my old boss. His case is one that I’ve followed closely and lost sleep over on more than one occasion.
Scrolling through social media shortly after the High Court delivered their verdict, a number of my Catholic friends had already posted comments like “justice at last!”
It’s a comment I couldn’t stop thinking about in the hours after the verdict. It could mean one of two things, either (1) “this verdict corrected significant failures of the Australian legal process – justice at last!” or (2) “I knew that he was innocent all along, and this proves it – justice at last!”
If my friends intended the former, “this verdict corrected significant failures of the Australian legal process,” they’re absolutely right. This trial and everything surrounding it was a mess before it even began. Back in June 2017, I wrote an article outlining my concerns that the media storm surrounding Pell’s case put his right to a fair trial at risk.
The High Court verdict confirms that he didn’t get one. All 7 of Australia’s highest-ranking judges unanimously ruled that there had been failure to properly weigh the evidence, first at trial and then in the Victorian Court of Appeal.
Addressing the trial, the High Court stated that on the basis of the evidence, a jury acting rationally could not find Pell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Could not.
Considering the decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal, the High Court found that “their Honours’ analysis 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.” That’s a pretty glaring oversight for two out of three Court of Appeal judges to make.
Pell’s trial and the fact that he has spent the last 404 days behind bars are a significant miscarriage of justice.
Lawyers around the country aren’t indifferent to this. Caroline Di Russo wrote shortly after the verdict “I am indifferent to George Pell. I am not indifferent to the law. This decision, while unpalatable to some, is the correct decision. It preserves the rights of [e]very citizen to a fair trial.”
If that’s what my Catholic friends mean when they say “justice at last,” then I wholeheartedly agree them.
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But I’m concerned that’s not what they mean. I’m afraid what they’re really saying is “I thought he was innocent all along, and this proves it! Justice at last!”
It’s clear that’s what some of them were thinking, because back in December 2018, after the jury first found Pell guilty on five charges of child sex abuse, they loudly declared his innocence on social media. That deeply disturbed me.
Innocent until proven guilty, absolutely. But innocent beyond proven guilty? That cannot be the stance that we as Catholics take.
I’m all in favour of due process. If a priest is found guilty and chooses to appeal that decision, we should be in full support of that. Pell’s case demonstrates the importance of the appeal process better than any other.
But we can’t be loudly defending a priest’s innocence after he’s found guilty in a court of law.
Because what happens when we’re wrong? What happens when we’re declaring Fr. Jim’s innocence on social media because “we just know he would never do something like this” and in actual fact, he did? What happens when, contrary to all public appearances, Fr. Jim was a monster who left a trail of broken children in his wake.
More than one parish has been left reeling when their beloved priest has been arrested of child sex abuse charges and later proven guilty.
We have to be so, so careful about how we navigate these cases. As the current Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, wrote in his statement after Pell was charged, “victims should be listened to with respect and compassion and their complaints investigated and dealt with according to the law.”
In this particular case, the law has run its course. Cardinal Pell’s conviction was wrong. On the evidence, he could not be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In overturning his conviction, the High Court has delivered justice.
While this particular battle for justice is over, I hope it prompts us Catholics to seriously reflect on how we think and talk about cases like this one. We need to guard against our own assumptions. We need to be compassionate to potential victims. We need to be careful about what we say.
When it comes to confronting the issue of child sex abuse in the Church, we’ve still got a long way to go before we can truly say “justice at last.”