The High Court’s acquittal of Cardinal Pell reveals some interesting questions about justice and truth. If we truly care – about all people, whether victims or accused – then we will want our legal system, our leaders and our society to value truth above all else.
Cardinal Pell acquitted
Cardinal George Pell has been acquitted of child sexual abuse charges by the High Court of Australia. And it goes without saying, but my interest in this matter is because I care.
I care about victims, I care about justice, and I care about the truth.
This acquittal was not a legal ‘mumbo jumbo’ outcome. He didn’t get off on a technicality. This was a unanimous decision of seven judges.
It was clear, it was decisive, it was sharp, and it was authoritative; and it highlighted a wide range of errors of both fact and law. This was about as powerful a rebuke as the High Court could give to the Victorian Court of Appeal, and it addressed serious failures.
The High Court said that there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted”. Why? Because “the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.
Now, that’s the fundamental point that flows through the entire judgement. It rests on the fact that guilt must be established beyond reasonable doubt in light of all of the evidence. That’s the standard of proof.
And the High Court said that the jury in this case actually must have entertained doubts in light of all of the evidence. That’s a strong statement.
But in another big call, they said that the Victorian Court of Appeal must also have entertained doubt.
They said that the Court of Appeal judges “reasoned to satisfaction of the applicant’s guilt by discounting a body of evidence that raised lively doubts as to the commission of the offences”.
What was Pell was accused of?
The allegations were as follows. It was Sunday Solemn High Mass on December 15th or December 22nd, 1996 in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, and George Pell was the newly installed Archbishop.
The mass concluded, and the choir and the servers made their usual procession towards the front door. And at that point, Pell and his Master of Ceremonies, Charles Portelli, would customarily stop and spend between 10 and 30 minutes greeting parishioners.
The allegation is that, on this day in question, he must have been able to break away from that process, or that it terminated early, so that he could commit the crime.
The choir and the servers, as per their usual custom, processed out the front and around the side of the cathedral to the back where they entered the rooms where choir, priests and others would de-vest, and where articles of worship that were used in the mass would be cleaned and stored away – a busy area.
Now, two choristers allegedly broke with this ritual and escaped from the procession, entering those rooms through another door. In one of these rooms, the priests’ sacristy, they allegedly encountered Pell who was accused of raping them over a period of about six minutes.
One of those boys was Pell’s accuser.
The jury found the accuser compelling in his recounting of those events, and the Court of Appeal agreed, and that’s why the case ended up in the High Court of Australia.
But the High Court was at pains to point out that the alleged victim was not the only credible witness. There were actually quite a number of credible witnesses described as honest, as compelling, as credible, and as unchallenged.
That was the important point: unchallenged.
There was Charles Portelli, Master of Ceremonies; Max Potter, sacristan; Daniel McGlone, altar server; Jeffrey Connor, altar server; Peter Finnegan, cathedral choir marshal; Anthony Nathan, choir boy; Luciano Parisi, choir member; Andrew La Greca, choir member; Rodney Dearing, choir member; David Dearing, choir member; Dr Cox, assistant organist; and many others.
Several of these had specific recollections of the days in question because they were memorable days: they were Pell’s first Solemn High Masses as Archbishop at St Patrick’s Cathedral.
The High Court observed that these witnesses displayed general consistency and substantial mutual support. Their honesty was not in question, and the High Court called their collective testimonies a “powerful body of evidence”.
What did this body of evidence show?
Firstly, that Pell always stopped at the front door of the cathedral and spoke to parishioners, never for less than 10 minutes and usually for longer. And remember that these were his first two Solemn High Masses at St Patrick’s, so he was particularly in demand.
Secondly, that Pell was always accompanied in the cathedral. It wasn’t permissible for him to be left alone, especially in his vestments, and he had to be accompanied to the sacristy to de-vest because of the ritual nature of that process. This was all part of Charles Portelli’s job description.
Thirdly, that the sacristy at the time at which the activity in question allegedly occurred was an absolute hive of activity, with many comings and goings and many people involved.
Now, the High Court observed that religious ceremonies follow solemn ritual and are inflexible. They noted that the memories of the witnesses were in some cases specific, including one who introduced his mother to Pell on one of the Sundays in question as he greeted parishioners.
The Court also noted that if the alleged victims had broken away from the procession as claimed, they would in fact have entered the priests’ sacristy after the servers were already in there, because they actually took a longer route. There certainly wouldn’t have been the six minutes for the incident to take place.
So could this possibly be guilt established “beyond reasonable doubt in light of all the evidence”?
The High Court has said, “Well, no.”
If we care about justice, it may help to think of it like this: what would this case mean if it were upheld?
A single witness more than 20 years later; no corroboration; extensive contradictory evidence; seeming implausibility. What if that could put a man in prison for the best part of his life and ruin him in every practical way?
The answer is very obvious.
This is no basis for justice.
This is no way to find and to uphold truth. It just cannot be permitted as a precedent. If it were permitted, then nobody would be safe from false imprisonment. The standard of proof would be so low as to be impossible not to satisfy.
Now, I don’t know Cardinal Pell, and I don’t know the alleged victim.
I don’t make any comment about the guilt or innocence of either; and yet, in reading the decision, I do know that the High Court has made the right call. Nothing could be clearer; nothing could be sharper.
Now, I want to show briefly how this rotten fruit started from rotten roots…
Victoria Police, without any complaints or evidence, started an operation called “Operation Tethering” in 2013. It was a police task force designed to find a crime and to find a complainant, neither of which it knew existed. It did so on the assumption that such things existed, and that’s highly unusual.
By December 2015, Victoria Police had actually advertised for complainants to come forward. A Guardian article published on December 23rd bore the headline “Victoria Police seek victims of sexual assault at St Patrick’s Cathedral”.
At the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in 2018, Barrister Robert Richter questioned Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan about this operation, saying, “It was a ‘get Pell’ operation, wasn’t it?” Sheridan responded, “I guess you could term it the way you did but I wouldn’t term it that way.”
Police found their complainant and charged Pell with, it seemed, no further evidence and despite interviewing those people whose testimony the High Court ultimately found compelling.
Now regarding the alleged victim in this case: I don’t know whether he is a victim of sexual abuse. He may well be. But he is certainly a victim of a disgraceful police operation, which amplified his pain by dragging him into a witch-hunt and through a case that was never going to survive High Court scrutiny.
Something is really wrong in the State of Victoria.
This is the state whose police force charges the peaceful victims of violent protests like Lauren Southern over $60,000 for their police services. Not the violent protesters, but the person who’s been protested against.
It’s the state whose police force has refused to send adequate resources to protect ACL events from violent protesters on multiple occasions. I have stood outside events being protested against where violence has broken out, and pleaded with police officers to do something to stop people trying to access or blockade the premises. And they’ve done nothing.
And afterwards, when we’ve sought to complain, they’ve threatened to charge our supporters with assault, because our supporters had to push through the crowd to get to the door. They did nothing more than that.
This is the state where premier Daniel Andrews puts out a media statement saying:
I make no comment about today’s High Court decision.
But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse.
I see you.
I hear you.
I believe you.
Now, of course he is commenting on that day’s decision about Cardinal Pell – even though he’s saying he’s not.
An accusation is not a proven fact. The justice system exists to find the truth, not based on who said what, or whether they assert that they’re a victim, or who they are, but based on what can be demonstrated actually happened.
And Victoria is rotting from the head, with a premier who is enabling a view of justice that is not based on the truth about a person’s actions, but based on who they are.
Who are the victims here?
Lauren Southern – the guilty party, because she has right-wing opinions?
ACL supporters – guilty parties, because they’re Christians?
Cardinal Pell – the guilty party, because he’s a Catholic?
What’s going on?
When ‘justice’ is meted out based on identity and not the truth, there is no justice
Isaiah 59 says, “Truth has stumbled in the public squares”. What’s the result?
Well, firstly, righteousness cannot enter. There’s no truth about what’s right and wrong.
And then what happens? Justice is turned back, because if you don’t have right and wrong, how on earth can you decide who’s done right and who’s done wrong?
There’s no justice.
And that’s what’s at stake here. Compare this with Cardinal Pell’s own statement, released shortly after his acquittal:
I hold no ill will to my accuser. I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.
However my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church.
The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.
And he goes on to say (and this is really the point):
The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.
Without that timeless principle, justice will be meted out based on identity, based on belief, based on perception, based on irrelevant considerations and biases, and not based on the truth about what people have actually done.
And if we get to that stage, there is no justice at all.
Again, I say all this because I actually do care about justice – justice for all and truth for all, whether accused or victims, whoever they are.