A Last Chance for Australian Justice

For Cardinal Pell’s sake, and for Australia’s, it must be hoped that, for once, and on its last chance, the Australian justice system will get it right.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, June 5, 2019. (CNS photo/Julian Smith, AAP Image via Reuters)

On March 11-12, the High Court of Australia will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse.” The High Court has seven judges and a majority vote is required to decide an appeal. In a high-profile case like this, it is expected that all seven judges will sit for the appeal, although in some instances only five sit. There is no set time-line for the High Court to render its decision.

Should the High Court reverse Cardinal Pell’s conviction, a verdict of “acquitted” will be entered in his case and the cardinal will be immediately released from prison. Should the High Court uphold the conviction, the reputation of Australian criminal justice will be gravely and permanently damaged, just as the reputation of French military justice was destroyed by the false conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus – another innocent man victimized by rancid politics and irrational religious prejudice.

Cardinal Pell’s first appeal, to the Supreme Court of the State of Victoria, was rejected last August by the 2-1 vote of a three-judge panel. The lengthy dissenting opinion by dissenting by Justice Mark Weinberg – the only judge on the panel with criminal law experience – has been praised as a masterpiece of legal reasoning. More to the immediate point, it has become clear in the past five months that the Weinberg opinion eviscerated the credibility of the prosecution case against Cardinal Pell as well as the opinions of the two judges who upheld the cardinal’s conviction (which, it will be remembered, came on a unanimous vote in a second trial after Pell’s first trial ended in a hung jury, reported to have been heavily in favor of the cardinal’s acquittal).

Justice Weinberg’s opinion clocked in at over two hundred pages. Reduced to essentials, its demolition of the reasoning of the two judges, Justices Anne Ferguson and Chris Maxwell) who upheld the conviction came down to something like this:

1. Ferguson and Maxwell: “After having watched a video of the complainant who charged Cardinal Pell, we found him honest and credible.” [Irrespective of the fact that no evidence, direct or corroborating, was ever presented that the alleged crimes ever occurred, and that the complainant’s account of what happened was seriously called into question by defense witnesses.]

2. Ferguson and Maxwell: “When a witness seemed confused about events that happened two decades ago, we accepted those parts of the evidence that buttress the complainant’s account and dismissed those parts of the evidence that would make the complainant’s account implausible, even impossible.” [Which is to abandon the presumption of innocence that has been a bedrock principal of Anglo-Saxon criminal law for centuries, and to abandon it to such a degree that no defense against the charges could have been possible.]

3. Ferguson and Maxwell: “We therefore conclude that the second jury could be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. We need not reckon with the vast amount of contradictory evidence provided by the defense. We don’t call them liars, just mistaken. We believe the complainant to be ‘credible,’ and that’s that.” [Which is to toss out the jurisprudential window another bedrock principle of Anglo-Saxon criminal law, according to which the prosecution must establish its case “beyond a reasonable doubt” for conviction in a criminal case.]

With the lifting of the press gag rule that kept relevant information about the trial from the Australian public, the prosecution’s literally incredible case, the defense demolition of that case and other crucial facts have been brought to public attention.

Such as the fact that the complainant’s story shifted over time, and under questioning.

And the fact that it was literally impossible for the alleged crimes to have been committed in the time-frame constructed by the prosecution.

And the fact that the complainant’s account of the sacristy area where the crimes were said to have been committed did not accurately describe the area at the time of the alleged crimes – but did accurately describe the area years later (which suggests, not merely confusion, but rehearsed testimony, the rehearsal being conducted by some rather inept people).

And the fact that the Victoria police department, which set up the fishing expedition that eventually led to the complaint of “historic sexual abuse,” has been declared to have been incompetent, inept, wasteful, ineffective, and weak in normal structures of accountability by a distinguished witness before a Royal Commission on the Management of Police Informants, Sir Ken Jones, himself a veteran British police officer, who also stated that the “ambient level of integrity was not as high as it needed to be” during his extensive contacts with the Victoria police.

As for Cardinal Pell, he is, by the accounts of those who have seen him recently, in the best physical shape he’s been in for years; he’s serene, cheerful, and grateful for the time provided by his incarceration to read and write. That in itself testifies to the character of a man confident of his innocence, a man who has said to visitors, “There is only one judgment I fear, and that is the final judgment” – which will not, of course, be rendered by a court.

Australian justice is, and has been, on trial throughout this entire tawdry affair. The burden of restoring reputation of Australian criminal justice now rests squarely with that nation’s highest court. For Cardinal Pell’s sake, and for Australia’s, it must be hoped that, for once, and on its last chance, the Australian justice system will get it right. If it does, an innocent man will be vindicated, and liberated to continue his service to both Church and society.

If it doesn’t, the reputation of Australian law and justice will be in tatters, irrespective of the obscene chortling of the Pell-haters whose bile has already raised the most severe questions about the country’s once-sterling reputation for courage, honesty, and fair play.

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About George Weigel 478 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Thank you, Mr. Weigel, for your steadfast, eloquent support of a noble man and a noble cause. Here is something I penned on Cardinal Pell’s behalf:


    No London Tower racks my wretched frame,
    No dynast’s wrath bears down upon my neck.
    Brave words unvoiced by Thomas gilt his name.
    Alas, my feeble words bring mine to wreck.

    A solitary window stirs my sense:
    I whiff the fulsome flames that whelm the spire
    Of Holy Mother Church in sore distress,
    I hark the dub’ia bell of hushed inquire.

    Now, joustless, cell-bound, where I would not go,
    The Global Prince serene upon the wing,
    Our ruddered Barque looks drifting to the shoal.
    Sweet Christ, Thou called my life to now what thing?

    As Tom, through walls, transposed his blood to Thee,
    Dost I, my Lord, join battle on my knees!

  2. I’m afraid that the reputation of the Australian judicial system is already in tatters. Even if acquitted, Cardinal Pell will have been unjustly deprived of his freedom for well over a year, with no opportunity even to say mass. it is too late for justice to be done, only that the injustice come to an immediate end. It is inexcusable that the Australian public was not kept up to date on the ongoing injustice. Australia has been disgraced. By God’s grace may its good name one day be restored.

  3. I hope you will publish my comment – you tend to censor those in disagreement.

    Australian justice employs the choicest professionals.
    Australian justice utilizes exhaustive processes.
    I am satisfied that Pell received a fair trial.

    As a matter of opinion and merely opinion, having encountered him once, I hope the guilty verdict stands. I speak as a Traditionalist – unlike Weigel who is a conservative supporter of the professional clerical caste by default.

    • Have you red Justice Weinberg’s opinion? He doesn’t think that Cardinal Pell [and I notice that refused to use his title] received a fair trial.

      You had better hope that, if someone accuses you of a crime, you get better justice thn, it would seem, is available in Victoria. Otherwise, all it will take is one person who changes his story; whose friend, and according to him fellow victim, denied to his mother that he was a victim; who tells a story that a large number of other witnesses deny could possibly have happened, to convict you. And then you can sit in jail comforting yourself that “Australian justice employs the choicest professionals” and “utilizes exhaustive processes.”

      “As a matter of opinion and merely opinion, having encountered him once, I hope the guilty verdict stands.”

      So, you didn’t like him, and therefore you hope he stays in jail. What a very charming person you are.

      • I encountered Cardinal Pell once – after Latin Mass in Sts. Peter and Paul’s church in Cork City, Ireland about 9 years ago. A strange man. I will leave it at that.

    • The issue is not a like or dislike of Mr. Weigel (sometimes he is a bit annoying, but so are we all), nor is it clericalism or traditionalism or anything else but this: a miscarriage of justice.

    • Fatima Sorrow wrote :

      Australian justice employs the choicest professionals.
      Australian justice utilizes exhaustive processes.
      I am satisfied that Pell received a fair trial.

      How sadly mistaken you are on all these counts … But even IF the first two were true, this doesn’t exclude the third being an unjustifiable assertion.

      I am afraid YOUR being satisfied that the Cardinal received a fair trial doesn’t cut it with those who have diligently followed the case and read the judgement of Justice Weinberg.

    • I have never met Cardinal Pell, but am convinced, after following the facts in this case, that he is innocent. Note that I said “innocent” too. I didn’t say that he just should be found “not guilty” in a trial, which is a much lower bar. I don’t know how anyone with any ability to reason at all could ever think otherwise about this case. If you don’t, then you don’t believe in the legal principle of innocent until proven guilty.

    • The fact that only one of the justices has significant criminal court experience should give anyone pause. Their system is quite different from ours and I would doubt those in the US would be in any hurry to adopt it when it stresses expediancy over detail. One reason our appeals processes are quite long is a genuine search for truth and protection of the rights of the accused.

  4. I agree with Chris C, I am afraid. A media campaign conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, together with the taxpayer funded ABC preceded the Victorian Police set up of Cardinal Pell. Australians have been exposed as a cringing and cowardly nation, too craven to apply the basic rules of the criminal law in case such cutting across the narrative brings their virtue-signalling credentials into disrepute. It makes me ashamed to be Australian and a lawyer. We have witnessed the wrongful imprisonment of an innocent man on the word of a liar. That, itself is bad enough, but when it is coupled with the affirmation of a verdict that cannot have been anything but a set-up, we have the appellate court affirming the injustice. We witness the law being distorted and perverted by those who purport to be officers of the court.

  5. This is George Weigel at his best. His defense of Cardinal Pell does him great credit. The conviction was a miscarrigae of justice.

  6. It is not a question of like or dislike of the author of this article. It is a fundamental search and understanding of the case investigation, the Court Proceedures, Evidence allowed or not allowed to present by Defence Counsel in Court. It is also a matter to understand that a Defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt without moving the goal posts to prove the doubt. The bias clearly shown towards the Defendant with the lengthy media advertising for complainants to come forward is extraordinary even though no complaints seemed to manifest themselves at the 2 year period. The large media persecution of the Defendant was bitter and rose to heights which can only be considered as shameful and disgraceful. The Defendant has been viciously hunted down and in my opinion has become the Man who is accountable for all the very sad and disgraceful criminal actions of Catholic Priests who have hurt and damaged countless people in Australia. However, the Australian Court failed to look at Cardinal Pell as an individual Defendant. The Cardinal has several enemies who have no conscious or morals and has been incarcerated for all the criminal actions of the priests who grossly failed in their Ordination Promises and who rightly should be jailed with lengthy sentences and thrown out of the Priesthood as a utter disgrace. The now Appellant, Cardinal Pell has a last chance on God’s earth to prove that in the time scale offered to the Court by Prosecuting Council, the allegations could not have occurred. All the other blatant flaws in the whole matter strike out and scream innocent. Australia you are on Trial and if you get this wrong you will become infamous in Legal history in every Faculty of Law throughout the world.
    Kinga Grzeczynska LL.B Chorley, Lancashire. United Kingdom

  7. This case would not have been before a jury in most states of Australia, it would have been before a judge alone.
    For a number of reasons this jury would not have had difficulty being beyond fear or favour in their deliberations.
    Cardinal Pell’s public persona at the Vic Royal Commission and
    the video evidence from the Cth Royal Commission would not have adhered him to the public.
    There was the Milligan book which had been published then suppressed, the promises to Ballarat Diocese to create a healing centre for victims not fulfilled by the Cardinal, the historical support in Court walking with accused Risdale,
    the reported response re the Fisher family abuse tragedy,
    Etc etc.
    Together with the Australian cultural cut down a tall poppy syndrome, and the want to punish the Catholic Church hierarchy for failing to address the issue of Prost abuse by referring to civil authorities and stepping them down immediately, and instead moving such people on to new sites of crime.
    Simply too much for any jury of ordinary folk to take out of their minds in order to objectively review evidence.
    If the jury reflected our demographics there would have been 3-4atheists/ agnostics/ no faith , 2 -3 Catholics ( probably none practicing and probably at least one lapsed ) 3 -4 other Christian Protestant denominations and 1 person of another faith. It’s hard to see Cardinal Pell having many persons from within these groupings that wouldn’t have some sort of axe to grind against Pell particularly given the public apology to victims by the Morrison govt on the eve of the second trial, something the Australian Catholic Bishops have inexplicably not managed to co-ordinate in a National Day of Sorry in Churches around the country itself .
    High profile cases must be before Judge alone in Victoria. Whatever the verdict.

    • “Catholic Church hierarchy for failing to address the issue of Prost abuse by referring to civil authorities”

      The thing that irks me is – why should the Church hierarchy be the ones to report to civil authorities? The person making the complaint should do that (or the person’s parents, if the alleged victim is a minor). I can see urging the alleged victim to go to the police, even offering to help contact them, but in what other crime would it be a case of, “Hello, police? Somebody told me a crime was committed.”

      “and stepping them down immediately,”

      That’s another thing that worries me: treating them as if they’re presumed to be guilty, immediately.

  8. “historic sexual abuse.” Is the use of “historic” and “historical” different in Australia from other English speaking countries? For me, “historic” means something important, and “historical” means something in the past. The Battle of Trafalgar is both “historic” and “historical” because it is important, and it happened over two hundred years ago.

  9. The charges against Cardinal Pell left me in shock. Even more astonishing was the conviction rendered and then the appeal denied. At this moment may human justice reflect the justice of our Heavenly Father and see Cardinal Pell exonerated and released from confinement. He is daily included in my morning offering.

  10. Fatima we don’t know who you are> I suspect you are troll working for litigation lawyers. There are megadollars riding on Pell going down.

    This seems to be an evil case. I don’t know what is behind it.
    Richard Mullins portal1943@gmail.com

    • What do you expect from someone with such a name like hers. “Fatima”
      I have not been following this case regularly but I feel something fishy here. I feel Cardinal Pell was set up. Let’s pray for him and Australians at large.

  11. The conviction of Cardinal Pell was not a miscarriage of justice, but a complete abortion thereof. Pell is truly the Catholic Dreyfuss.

  12. Australian “justice” is a joke. Due process has taken a walk. We have people jailed without trial by jury regularly. The place has become a giant police state, hence the building of “super jails” everywhere. A fair proportion of inmates are blameless individuals who object to having their children stolen by the Divorce Industrial complex. The law has become a feminist jurisdiction and this is the result. The “choicest practitioners”. Please, don’t make me laugh. Avaricious, venal, duplicitous; I think they are the words you’re after. We all know Pell was stitched up and if they can do it to him, they can do it to the rest of us. A shameful episode in the nation’s history.

  13. Australian justice employs the choicest professionals.
    Australian justice utilizes exhaustive processes.
    I am satisfied that Pell received a fair trial.

    Fatima Sorrow, as an Irish national, should know better than most that the choicest British professionals and exhaustive British processes condemned to life imprisonment the ‘Guildford Four’ and the ‘Birmingham Six’ for crimes that they never committed. And they were kept in prison because the fact that Judges and Jury may have been wrong was too much “an appalling vista” to contemplate. PPrejudice and ill-will can corrupt any system.

    • For those interested in gaining insight into the legal process of Cardinal Pell’s trial, this article by Jeremy Gans, gives a rational and professional critique of the legal proceedings.
      Jeremy Gans is a Professor in Melbourne Law School, where he researches and teaches across all aspects of the criminal justice system.

      Thank you for considering this in your pursuit of the truth.

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