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After Cardinal Pell’s rightful acquittal

There remains a lot to be reckoned with in the aftermath of this case, which bore all the tawdry hallmarks of a witch hunt.

Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrates Court Oct. 6, 2018. (CNS photo/Mark Dadswell, Reuters)

The unanimous decision by Australia’s High Court to quash Cardinal George Pell’s convictions on charges of “historic sexual abuse” and acquit him of those crimes was entirely welcome. Truth and justice were served. An innocent man was freed from imprisonment. The criminal justice system in the State of Victoria was informed by Australia’s supreme judicial authority that it had gotten things badly wrong. The anti-Pell haters in the Australian media were reminded that their power has limits.

Yet there remains a lot to be reckoned with in the aftermath of this case, which bore all the tawdry hallmarks of a witch hunt.

Did the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation [ABC] collude with a corrupt Victoria police department in a sleazy attempt to dig up alleged crimes where none had been previously reported? Why did so weak a case ever come to trial, given compelling evidence that what was said to have happened simply could not have happened in the timeframe and circumstances alleged by the complainant? Why was the jury never informed that the complainant had a history of psychological problems? What effect did the lynch mob atmosphere in Victoria have on the hung jury in the cardinal’s first trial, and on the incomprehensible guilty verdict rendered by the jury in the retrial? Why was the cardinal forbidden to say Mass for over 400 days, even when in solitary confinement?

These are questions proper to Australia and should be examined by the public authorities there; a parliamentary inquiry into the behavior of ABC and the Victoria police seems the least that ought to be done. The Pell affair also has implications for other countries and for the world Church, as public officials and Catholic leaders continue to grapple with the societal-wide plague of the sexual abuse of the young.

Cardinal Pell had two jury trials because in the State of Victoria, a defendant in a criminal case cannot request a bench trial (i.e., a trial by a judge alone). Surely this policy needs to be re-examined in all jurisdictions in which it is in force, given the extreme difficulty of empaneling an unbiased jury in fevered public circumstances such as those surrounding the Pell affair (which resembled Salem in 1692 or France during the 1894 Dreyfus case).

In the State of Victoria, a criminal charge of sexual abuse can be brought to trial solely on the word of a complainant. No physical evidence of abuse having occurred is required; neither is any form of corroboration. This requires re-examination, and not just in Australia.

The Crown prosecutor’s case against Cardinal Pell rested on the credibility of the complainant and nothing else. The two judges whose appellate decision last summer upheld the cardinal’s conviction cited a similar credibility criterion as decisive. There is something seriously wrong here, though. Complainant credibility should be the beginning of a chain of legal reasoning, not the end of the matter. For if “credibility” is the only criterion to be considered, then no real defense is possible against a charge of sexual abuse (or any other charge, for that matter).

Raising one criterion of legal judgment, complainant credibility, to the sole criterion of judgment renders a defendant guilty prima facie – and that dismantles two of the pillars of a just criminal law: presumption of innocence, and the state’s obligation to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The High Court decision strongly objected to this narrow focus of judgment, as did Justice Mark Weinberg in his brilliant dissent from last August’s mistaken appellate decision. Other jurists and legal practitioners throughout the world should pay close attention. Otherwise, sentiment will replace reason in adjudicating criminal cases, and that is effectively the end of the rule of law.

Media irresponsibility is not just a problem in Australia. ABC, however, has set a new standard for viciousness in its ongoing campaign of defamation against the Catholic Church and Cardinal Pell – a campaign that reached new depths of ugliness even as the High Court was considering its decision. And ABC is a public-funded, state-owned broadcast service. Some hard thinking about the public responsibility of public broadcasters is thus in order throughout the world. No one has a free speech or freedom-of-the-press right to engage in willful defamation of character, and certainly not at taxpayer expense.

Cardinal Pell has been vindicated, but others matters of consequence remain unsettled. It can only be hoped that the cardinal’s acquittal helps both Church and state think more clearly, and act more justly, when faced with the grave crime of sexual abuse.

– Related at CWR: “Justice, finally.” (April 6, 2020) by George Weigel

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About George Weigel 428 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).


    • And the statement of the Young man known as Witness J:

      I respect the decision of the High Court. I accept the outcome.

      I understand their view that there was not enough evidence to satisfy the court beyond all reasonable doubt that the offending occurred.

      I understand that the High Court is saying that the prosecution did not make out the case to the required standards of proof.

      There are a lot of checks and balances in the criminal justice system and the appeal process is one of them. I respect that.

      It is difficult in child sexual abuse matters to satisfy a criminal court that the offending has occurred beyond the shadow of a doubt.

      It is a very high standard to meet — a heavy burden.

      I understand why criminal cases must be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.

      No-one wants to live in a society where people can be imprisoned without due and proper process.

      This is a basic civil liberty. But the price we pay for weighting the system in favour of the accused is that many sexual offences against children go unpunished.

      That’s why it remains important that everyone who can report to the police does so.

      I would hate to think that one outcome of this case is that people are discouraged from reporting to the police.

      I would like to reassure child sexual abuse survivors that most people recognise the truth when they hear it.

      They know the truth when they look it in the face. I am content with that.

      I would like to thank the police and the Office of Public Prosecutions for their work. I have felt well supported through this journey.

      My journey has been long and I am relieved it is over. I have my ups and downs. The darkness is never far away.

      Despite the stress of the legal process and public controversy I have tried hard to keep myself together. I am OK. I hope that everyone who has followed this case is OK.

      I thank the media for respecting my privacy and for continuing to protect my identity. This has allowed me to stay on track with my recovery and wellbeing.

      This case does not define me. I am a man who came forward for my friend who, sadly, is no longer with us.

      I am a man doing my best to be a loving dad, partner, son, brother and friend.

      I am doing my best to find and hold joy in my life and to provide a safe and loving home for my family.

      • “The simple reality is that anonymous J made up the story about Cardinal Pell. That he is a liar can be said now, thanks to the High Court, but this recognition of a fabulist has been strangely missing from all of the public commentary I have read. J’s first statement, after Pell’s original conviction, and second, after the failure of his appeal in Victoria, as well as this most recent one, must all be read with Cardinal Pell’s innocence in mind. In that light they can be seen as masterpieces of deceit and misdirection.”

  1. “Cardinal Pell had two jury trials because in the State of Victoria, a defendant in a criminal case cannot request a bench trial (i.e., a trial by a judge alone).”

    Which would be great if the defendant got someone like Justice Weinberg; not so great if he got someone like the two nitwits who wrote the majority opinion of the Victoria appeals court.

    • “Which would be great if the defendant got someone like Justice Weinberg; not so great if he got someone like the two nitwits who wrote the majority opinion of the Victoria appeals court.”

      …and Leslie, this is a very good reason for the the argument for having a Jury.

      • That was the point I was making. I congratulate you for grasping it.

        One is left balancing the percentage of prejudiced among the ranks of the jury pool versus those in the judiciary.

  2. Australian Anti-Catholic Liberalism is even more vicious, hateful and criminally entitled than the one here in the USA and Cardinal Pell, strengthened and anointed by the Holy Spirit, won over the Self-Righteous Armies of Hell. God alone and all the True Catholics of the world praying for him, as the Vatican was more concerned about cheap environmentalism, the one that saves animals BY killing souls. Cardinal Pell shows, like all the great Saints, that it is the Ecology of The Soul In Jesus that blesses all Creation, animals and all human society and not the other way around.

    Cardinal Pell is a True Catholic Witness that proves there is victory in Christ, but we must remain faithful and not bow down EVER to the hyper-aggressive Pachamamas of the corrupt world and their destruction-thirsty servants.

    Only Satan begins and ends with animals, using humans only to stir hate among all humans and fill the universe with hate disguised as “justice”. The Catholic Church is like the Headless Horseman right now but Cardinal Pell has a holy head on his shoulders, following the Head of the Mystical Body, Jesus Christ. Let’s follow him like He follows Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). If our spiritual father is an absentee, deadbeat dad, Cardinal Pell is a strong, True Father who points to the Heavenly Father. Let’s follow his lead!!

  3. Seriously contributing to false prosecutions and persecutions of good clergymen is the wrongheaded approach with Vatican approval (complete kowtowing to the secular world) that all that is needed for a clergyman to lose his position (suspension, removal, etc.) is merely an accusation by an alleged victim of abuse that someone in leadership deems has a “semblance of truth.”

    “Semblance of truth” ultimately means the following: If it is merely possible no matter how unlikely or absurd that some abuse of some form occurred at some time in the past, such meets the threshold to punish the accused clergyman with removal from his position and some public humiliation by listing him in various publications as a person removed from office because of allegations of abuse that have a “semblance of truth.”

    This faux standard was in essence applied to Cardinal Pell (highlighted by the 2 appellate judges in their unjust exercise of falsely rationalizing a bogus jury verdict) before he was ultimately exonerated by the High Court of Australia, and closer to home in Detroit, Michigan, traditionalist priest Fr. Perrone has been removed as a pastor since last summer due to an absurd accusation based on an alleged repressed memory resurfacing from some 40 years ago that the Archdiocese of Detroit leadership “brilliantly” deemed has a “semblance of truth” even though the accuser may have also recently come forward to claim the alleged abuse did not occur. No matter if the accuser has indeed so come forward: an alleged victim is to be believed if he or she claims abuse, but if he or she changes his or her mind or reconsiders (perhaps as an act of good conscience kicking in), etc., that is to be ignored and the persecution proceeds. Yeah, that’s showing respect for alleged victims and those they accuse, right? And so much for the truth, which is supposed to motivate and be a definitive part of Catholic actions.

    This egregiously unjust “standard” of “semblance of truth” should be immediately jettisoned and replaced with a more just standard to justify investigations that protect both alleged victim and alleged perpetrator: Something like “reasonable possibility of occurring” would be a much better approach/standard, and clergymen should not be suspended unless and until an investigation reveals information and evidence that gives objective credence to the charges. Otherwise, the matter goes no further and the claims are dismissed…unless objective evidence in support is eventually brought forward to trigger re-opening an investigation.

    Alas, with the aforementioned kowtowing to the secular world to foolishly attempt to demonstrate to the world that the Church is really serious about cracking down on abuse, the faux “semblance of truth” insanity is likely to continue, and good and innocent people like Cardinal Pell and Fr. Perrone will be made to wrongly suffer as a result.

    NB:Repressed memory nonsense is also wreaking havoc. For some good insights into this, start with the following:

  4. My impression from the reports of abuse by clergy in the US is that there are multiple accusers which gives a sounder path for police to question the perpetrator; sole accusers anywhere are more of problem particularly when police have told the media that the accuser is believed no matter what incredibly improbable tale he is telling, e.g. “Bernie” interviewed in the ABC Sarah Ferguson’s Episode 3 of Revelation making out that he was assaulted continually by GP in an orphanage (even to GP helping him in the toilet when he was constipated) which GP only visited once and that was when it had been closed down. You would think VicPol or sano task force had more sense than charging falsely accused people on impulse. GP and another former Marist Brother (again one accuser from 1977) were both committed for trial by Magistrate Wallington (photographed together with Louise Milligan, writer of the shonky “Cardinal”. Both GP and the former Marist Brother were acquitted within a week of each other. The former Marist Brother suffered emotionally for 5 years and is $180,000 out of pocket. VicPol, the DPP, Magistrate, the two Appeal Court Justices and the Premier are not trusted in Victoria anymore. Fair enough, criminal activity must be punished but charges based on ludicrous accusations emanating on recovered and reconstructed false memories?

  5. Like the Dreyfus Affair, forthcoming scholarly books will project the dereliction of the Victorian legal Ascendancy far into the future Australian psyche. Community trust in the good faith of our most powerful institutions has been in free fall over other official scandals of Government. In the meantime, two conspicuous problems arise : [1] Following Cardinal Pell’s acquittal by the HCA, the law’s Victorian representative entities have now publicly repudiated the presumption of innocence as its applies to the Cardinal, and [2] the politically partisan corruption deeply embedded in the Vicpol Command has questions to answer, if the responsible institutions of Civil Society can stir themselves to extract them. It is far from from certain that these problems will even be addressed. Paul Collits'”Ten Sets of Questions for Vicpol ..”is percipient [at ‘ ,3 March 2020]

  6. Thank God truth Prevail with Cardinal Pell he still had to suffer 400 Days in prison as an innocent man and he’s not the only one that has had to suffer. How many others have suffered and changed on this entire sexual abuse crisis. The church needs to fight it with one mind and heart not with ambiguity you need to go forward and the innocent and accusedned need to be protective. we need to stop what we’ve done and move forward but the church has to unite we have to break ground and stop staying in our little isolated clicks I’m a crisis, I’m a Catholic World Report,I’m with the Remnant,I’m with Pius the 10th, we all need to unite and start fighting properly until we do that we’re all going to suffer.

  7. I was recently on an extended visit to Bangkok with my wife to visit her family and the only English speaking TV news available was ABC, NKK, and Al Jazeera. I have to say that the quality of ABC was clearly at the bottom as they seemed unable to select what was to be significant and what was dreck. The most attractive presentation was clearly Al Jazeera. A most enlightening experience.

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