by Peter Westmore
As News Weekly goes to press, the High Court of Australia has unanimously upheld the appeal by Cardinal George Pell against a majority decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal, reversing a terrible injustice suffered by the Cardinal last year.
Cardinal Pell, pictured, had been convicted of sexually abusing two choir boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral after Sunday Solemn Mass, on the uncorroborated evidence of one of the alleged victims – even though the complainant changed his story at several points when challenged, and over 20 other witnesses at the trial gave sworn evidence contradicting his version of events.
The High Court ordered that the convictions be quashed and verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place.
Cardinal Pell has maintained his innocence throughout, but always acted with complete deference towards the judge who wrongly sentenced him, and the Appeal Court justices who confirmed the sentence.
One of Cardinal Pell’s first actions after being appointed archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 was to establish, at the Church’s expense, an independent process called the Melbourne Response, where victims of sexual abuse could make complaints and receive compensation for their suffering.
Cardinal Pell’s trial followed a Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into sexual abuse in church-run institutions and a Royal Commission that revealed the cover-up of sexual abuse of children over many years.
Although serious abuse was uncovered throughout society, including in the Anglican Church, Uniting Church, Salvation Army, the Jewish faith, and numerous government departments responsible for child welfare, the focus was firmly on the Catholic Church.
There is no doubt that there was an environment of intense hostility towards the Catholic hierarchy at the time, amounting to a witch hunt, particularly on social media and through the ABC, which made a fair trial virtually impossible.
Cardinal Pell’s appeal to the High Court was based on two central arguments:
- The majority in the Court of Appeal erred in their assertion that the complainant was so credible that Cardinal Pell had to establish that the offending was impossible. In other words, that Cardinal Pell was required to prove his innocence, rather than the prosecution proving his guilt.
- The majority of the Court of Appeal erred in finding that the jury verdicts were not unreasonable, in light of all the evidence contradicting it.
The High Court considered that, while the Court of Appeal majority assessed the evidence of the opportunity witnesses as leaving open the possibility that the complainant’s account was correct, their analysis “failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.
The High Court found that the “unchallenged evidence” of other witnesses was inconsistent with the complainant’s account, and described:
(i) The applicant’s practice of greeting congregants on or near the Cathedral steps after Sunday solemn Mass.
(ii) The established and historical Catholic Church practice that required that the applicant, as an archbishop, always be accompanied when robed in the Cathedral.
(iii) The continuous traffic in and out of the priests’ sacristy for 10 to 15 minutes after the conclusion of the procession that ended Sunday solemn Mass.
The Court held that, on the assumption that the jury had assessed the complainant’s evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable, the evidence of the opportunity witnesses nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents.
With respect to each of the applicant’s convictions, there was, consistently “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.
Following the High Court judgement, Cardinal Pell was released from prison, where he had been confined for about 14 months.