AUSTRALIAN Catholics have been appalled over the last three decades at the revelations of abuse by some priests and religious and the coverups by many church leaders. So they have been grateful for the efforts of those bishops who first took action to sack perpetrators and put in place safeguarding mechanisms. Two bishops stood out, George Pell and Philip Wilson. Both initiated vigorous action when they took charge of dioceses, despite obstruction from the Vatican. Pell startled the Royal Commission into child abuse by telling them that it was hard to get action from Pope John Paul II because he thought the abuse scandal was a Communist plot.
It was therefore surprising to Catholics when Wilson and Pell were the very bishops convicted by the Australian justice system. Wilson’s conviction on charges of concealing a complaint of child abuse was overturned on appeal. Pell’s conviction for sexual penetration of a child is currently subject to appeal.
All Australians should consider the strength of the evidence against Pell for themselves. It is possible to do that because the evidence is essentially available and there is so little of it. (The exact trial transcript is not yet available, but the main evidence can be found in Louise Milligan’s book Cardinal and attendees at the trial have made clear that the evidence was as described there. It consists just in the complainant’s account.) No-one should simply say, “The jury found him guilty, that’s how the system works and it’s good enough for me.” That is because, as multiple sources have confirmed, the jury in the first trial voted 10-2 for acquittal.
The problems with the evidence have been laid out in Frank Brennan’s article at Eureka Street. One of the two alleged victims died of an overdose after saying no-one had abused him. The surviving alleged victim claims Pell assaulted him in circumstances which the defence believed they had proved could not have happened. The layout of the cathedral and sacristy made the crime close to impossible. The elaborate vestments Pell was wearing at the time made it more so. There is no corroborating evidence.
Cardinal Pell has been the most prominent Australian Catholic for decades. Many Australian Catholics have over the years objected to his management style and opinions on various topics. They have accepted that he mishandled some abuse cases through wrongly evaluating the evidence. They have not been inclined to suspect him of abuse. The state of the evidence, as it stands at present, will not convince them otherwise. Nor should it convince anyone else.
We live in an age of naïve faith in trial by jury, though its errors in cases with little evidence are known. Insiders of the criminal justice system are not so sure. A number feel disquiet but are not saying anything in public, no doubt to protect the good name of the institution. The dead choirboy’s psychiatrist cannot be asked his/her professional opinion on the cause of his/her client’s problems because the psychiatric confessional is sacrosanct. So the public is left to supplement its ignorance with speculation.
Some of what happened in the media and justice system may have looked like a witchhunt, but Pell’s conviction was not the result of that. The court system acted correctly in putting the evidence to a jury (or rather, two juries). The problem is simply a mismatch between the jury’s verdict and the objective relation between the evidence and the conclusion. The evidence is inadequate to support the verdict.
No-one knows what the result of the appeal will be. In the meantime anyone wishing to comment on the case is welcome to do so, but only after examining the evidence for themselves.