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Analysis: Pell’s appeal for justice

By Ed Condon

Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne Feb. 27, 2019. Cardinal Pell was jailed after being found guilty of child sexual abuse; the Vatican announced his case would be investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (CNS photo/Daniel Pockett, AAP images via Reuters)

Melbourne, Australia, Mar 4, 2019 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- Cardinal George Pell remains in an Australian jail, pending the appeal of his recent conviction for child sex abuse.

His conviction has sharply divided public opinion, and has also shone a light on the difficulty of dealing legally with historical sexual abuse allegations, especially in a climate conditioned by decades of scandal.

The verdict in Pell’s case has raised serious questions about how a legal system can adapt to cope with a culture that places great and public store in the importance of believing victims.

Those questions are part of an emerging and urgent conversation about how the rights of the accused can be balanced with the public good that comes from encouraging victims to come forward, even when the abuse is alleged to have happened long in the past.

When victims are ignored, justice is denied, abusers go free, and other victims suffer in silence.

But, for justice to be served, a distinction must be made between hearing victims, and treating their allegations as legally probative and exempt from juridical scrutiny.

This problem is compounded as statutes of limitations are rolled back in many jurisdictions: once thought to be pragmatic concessions to the reality that evidence deteriorates and witnesses die, they are now seen by many as impediments to justice.

When judging the veracity of historical allegations becomes an exercise in choosing only between the word of the accuser and that of the accused, the right to due process is at risk of becoming moot, and the presumption of innocence of becoming a legal fiction; especially if the credibility of the accuser is placed formally beyond the reach of examination.

Often – as in Pell’s case – the victim is the only witness. Commentators have noted that Pell’s jury, and the public, had only limited information about the accuser and his background. His credibility, some have observed, although central to the court’s proceedings, was not allowed to be discussed.

Pell’s lone accuser offered a graphic account of being sexually abused by Pell in a busy Melbourne cathedral one Sunday morning in 1996. The accuser said another boy was abused at the same time; but that boy denied multiple times having been abused. Since he died in 2014, the court could not hear his testimony.

Absent any other witnesses, other factors were supposed to help the jury weigh the allegations:

Do the circumstances of time and place accord with the victim’s narrative?

Does the abuse fit within a recognizable pattern of other behavior or allegations?

Are there similarities between the allegations and other known cases of sexual abuse?

These questions are contextual and imperfect, but they have value.

There is, for example, hardly ever a one-time sexual abuser of children. An escalating pattern of behavior is nearly always apparent. Abuse also usually follows a period of “grooming behavior” in which the victim is gradually isolated physically and emotionally with the abuser. The act of abuse itself, and the circumstances of time and place, are often chillingly familiar; sexual abuse tends to follow distinct patterns.

Observers have noted that allegations against Pell fit none of those patterns.

Pell was convicted of sexually assaulting the victim twice: one encounter an incidence of groping in a hallway, the other, at which the other boy was present, was said to take place after a 10:30 Mass in Melbourne’s cathedral.

Pell supposedly managed to abuse the boys simultaneously, while still vested from Mass – something witnesses testified would have been nearly physically impossible for him to do.

The event was said to have taken place in a public space at its most crowded time. Pell was shown to have rarely been in that place during the time frame alleged – during the six month window identified by the prosecution, Pell celebrated the 10:30 Mass only twice.

The cardinal is facing no other charges. There are no other alleged victims. The attack appears to have been spontaneous, not preceded by any kind of grooming relationship. It is not alleged by experts to conform to any obvious pattern of predatory behavior.

Pell’s defence lawyer made the reasonable observation that “only a madman” would attempt to do what Pell has been convicted of doing in the time and place he was found to have done it.

As Judge Brian Kidd noted during this week’s bail hearing, there is no evidence that Pell is a madman.

While these factors were presented in court, they seem not to have overly influenced the jury.

But many commentators, including otherwise implacable critics of the cardinal, have been far less convinced by the evidence against him.

Some have questioned whether Pell’s public stature in Australia impacted his trial. The cardinal has been the subject of decades of close media scrutiny and criticism, not least for taking unflinchingly conservative Catholic positions in highly secularized society, and as the face of a Church synonymous with an egregious clerical sexual abuse crisis.

Anger in Australia over clerical sexual abuse is pervasive. Last year another archbishop was convicted of abuse related charges, only to be acquitted on appeal when a judge decided that anti-Catholic sentiment had played a role in his trial. Whether that was true in Pell’s case is now a subject of fierce debate.

Melbourne legal expert Jeremy Gans told The Guardian last week that because there was only one key witness, there is a good chance Pell’s appeal will succeed. But the debate around Pell’s conviction raises a question germane to a broader set of issues: In the climate of our time, what means are there — what will is there — to ensure that those accused of sexual abuse receive a fair trial on the merits of the evidence?

That question unanswered, Pell and his lawyers are appealing for justice. So too are victims of sexual abuse. In a changing culture, courts will have to find a way to do justice for them both.


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11 Comments

  1. “a culture that places great and public store in the importance of believing victims.”

    What the culture is actually placing great and public store in is believing anybody who claims to be a victim.

    They are victims only if what they is true. It is stupid for people to say, “Oh, but we must believe the victim!” when the whole point at issue is, *is” the person really a victim?

    Otherwise, what you have is “to be accused is to be found guilty.” It is a gross miscarriage of justice. There are plausible liars out there, and they should not be allowed to ruin people’s lives.

    • The defence team hired by Cardinal Pell was the best, they left no stone unturned and even hired private detectives to try and discredit the victims account and evidence. The trial process was a fair and rigorous legal process.

  2. One can’t help but wonder if Pell isn’t being punished with bogus accusations simply because of his courageous orthodoxy.

    Pray for him.

  3. The first Jury gave 10-2 for acquital. With the same evidence or rather lack of it, the second jury came up with 12-0 for conviction. How did that happen?

    First we must ask why the prosecution demanded and got a secret trial. How is best served by the secrecy but the one who asks for it.

    Secondly, the police had already asked for information about Pell ONE YEAR before the allegation came through.

    The question is : who is behind the police? who is behind the victim? and who is behind the jury.

    • Very true. Actually, Victoria Police started “Operation Get Pell” while the Cardinal was giving testimony to the Royal Commission. They opened a file for him without anyone making a complaint. Very unusual move. And then advertised for accusers to come forward – specifically asking for anyone connected to the Melbourne Cathedral to come forward. This is justice by Mussolini who advised his police: ” You create the charge. I’ll find the man.”

  4. Another “question” [left entirely] “unanswered” (in this article) is what is the analysis (including prognosis) of Pell’s appeal – something completely left out of this article with its misleading headline.

  5. I personally do not believe the CDL. Pell is guilty of this accusation. He is a victim of conspiracy at the highest levels……I pray for him and know that God will eventually intervene and bring him justice.

  6. Where are the Thomas becket’s of today. Where is the church militant protecting and defending the innocent. Our whole legal system weather in this country definitely and in other countries needs to be relooked at who’s innocent who’s guilty.ls it a church court or civil court. We need to bring back a Catholic State. The hierarchy needs to address this issue immediately from reading Catholic report it seems that Pell is innocent is the hierarchy keeps their mouth closed they’re performing again another evil on an innocent human being. According to what I’m reading and I don’t know a lot of details groping could be very serious or nothing and I don’t know what the other allegation was with the boy how far did he go I need details but groping to me is not nothing that’s a criminal could be stupid but criminal I don’t know. Basically this is attacked by Satan and evil spirits to try to destroy Catholics and the church however we have no church militant 1.3 billion Catholics are lazy,fat, and weak okay we’re not strong not trained we don’t train to fight. we should all be like Green Berets but we’re not so that’s our fault also everyone of us. However if Pell is innocent or guilty only God knows and if Pell repents he will be in heaven next to all the victims anyway for eternity

  7. I don’t like the Catholic church very much and their history of covering up for sexually deviant priests has trashed the moral authority of their church. However in this case I read everything available on the case and find it is astonishing that he actually did the crime and was convicted. In this case it was impossible. If, as I expect, Pell wins his appeal, I hope that old windbag judge apologises to him. Pell is finished and will then die with some dignity in the next year or two.

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