George Pell: Justice at last, or justice denied?

Caption: George Pell arrives at court in 2017 (Photo: MAL FAIRCLOUGH/AFP/Getty Images).

When it was finally revealed that Cardinal George Pell had been convicted of child sexual abuse, reactions were nothing if not predictable. Most of the legacy media and the political left were triumphant, while others, mostly conservatives, were uneasy at what they saw as a possible miscarriage of justice. Conservative warrior Andrew Bolt was the most forthright: ?I don?t accept it?, he wrote.

Fr. Frank Brennan is a Jesuit priest, but hardly a conservative: a human rights lawyer with a lifelong record of fighting for social justice causes. Brennan is also no friend of George Pell: the two have traded barbs for years, with Pell once imputing that Brennan was not a very good Catholic. ?He is not one of my fans,? admits Brennan. ?And neither am I one of his?.

But Brennan, while more circumspect than Bolt, is also clearly uneasy with Pell?s trial and conviction. Quote:

The complainant, who cannot be identified, did not give evidence at the retrial. The recording from the first trial was admitted as the complainant?s evidence. The recording was available to the public only insofar as it was quoted by the barristers in their examination of other witnesses or in their final ?addresses to the jury and by the judge in his charge to the jury. So, no member of the public has a complete picture of the evidence and no member of the public is able to make an assessment of the complainant?s demeanour. End of quote.

On the face of it, the testimony against Pell seems weak. The complainant alleges basically, that the stickler Pell, broke with his standard procedure to pursue two boys he didn?t know, and despite his cumbersome liturgical robes, molested them in a room with an open door onto a busy corridor ? and no one noticed. Quote:

The complainant said?[Pell] commit[ed] three sexual acts, including oral penetration of the complainant. The complainant said the sacristy door was wide open and altar servers were passing along the corridor. The complainant said he and the other boy then returned to choir practice. The choir was making a Christmas recording at that time.

These two choir boys stayed in the choir another year but, the complainant said, they never spoke about the matter to each other, even though they sometimes had sleepovers at each other?s homes. The second boy was once asked by his mother if he had ever been abused by anybody and he said he had not?Pell knew neither boy and had no contact with either of them thereafter. End of quote.

The defence made much of the unlikeliness of the scenario. Quote:

[Robert] Richter criticised inherent contradictions and improbabilities of many of the ?details of this narrative?Witnesses familiar with liturgical vestments were called. They gave compelling evidence it was impossible to produce an erect penis through a seamless alb?An alb cannot be unbuttoned or unzipped, the only openings being small slits on the side to allow access to trouser pockets.

The complainant?s initial claim to police was that Pell had parted his vestments, but an alb cannot be parted; it is like a seamless dress.

Later, the complainant said Pell moved the vestments to the side. An alb secured with a cincture cannot be moved to the side. The police never inspected the vestments during their investigations, nor did the prosecution show that the vestments could be parted or moved to the side as the complainant had alleged?

My only conclusion is [that]?although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed Pell did something dreadful to him. End of quote.

So, is it, as critics like Bolt have alleged, a miscarriage of justice?

There have been many false convictions before in Australia. Perhaps the most notorious in living memory is the shocking case of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. Unlike the Pell case, the Chamberlain prosecution rested on apparently solid forensic evidence. Yet they were falsely convicted of the heinous crime of murdering their baby daughter. Quote:

Pell has been in the public spotlight for a very long time. There are some who would convict him of all manner of things in the court of public opinion, no matter what the evidence. Others would never convict him of anything, holding him in the highest regard. End of quote.

I’m certainly not in the latter camp, but George Pell, like the Chamberlains, has been thoroughly demonised by the media pack. In the lead-up to Pell?s arrest, virtue-signalling leftist pop stars wrote vituperative songs about him; left-wing journalists rushed to print hatchet-jobs before suppression orders were imposed. ?What we have witnessed is a combined effort by much of the media, including the public broadcaster, and elements of Victoria?s law enforcement agency, to blacken the name of someone before he went to trial,? says Greg Craven. Police, who admitted to forming what ?I guess you could term? a ?Get Pell? unit, forced the case forward despite Victoria?s prosecutorial authorities rejecting their brief three times. Quote:

Such things tend to shift, not the legal, but the reputational burden upon an accused person to prove innocence rather than the prosecution to prove guilt?

Was the verdict unreasonable? Can it be supported having regard to the evidence? Those are questions for the appeal court. End of quote.