LAST WEEK THE DUE DATE PASSED for the last submissions to the High Court of Australia with regard to Cardinal Pell’s appeal against his conviction for sexual assault. Next month the High Court, the Commonwealth’s highest court which can hear appeals from state supreme courts as in Pell’s case, will hear his appeal.
No one doubts the fact that clerical sexual abuse and misconduct has been more widespread than had been previously assumed, insofar as it was even envisaged at all. What has aggravated the matter has been the number of cases in which ecclesiastical authorities have mishandled cases when they have become known. Some bishops and religious superiors in earlier days acted in a combination of ignorance of the effect that sexual abuse has on minors, whose youth magnifies the trauma not least because they have precious little of the psycho-emotional equipment needed to deal with it healthily, and a naive optimism that either a change of scene or professional therapy would set things to right. We know better now.
Other bishops and religious superiors have acted far more cynically. Revelations of such cynicism and duplicity are emerging most clearly from the United States. While the more egregious examples have led to the downfall of the prelates concerned, that is certainly not universally so. Some prelates seem teflon coated, others seems able to ride out the storms of revelations with gritted teeth but little more than that.
None of this justifies or excuses injustice. Not every complainant is telling the truth. Carl Beech, who made widespread accusations against British establishment figures, is the most glaring and obvious example. There are others. There is a sound and laudable desire to ensure that the process for securing justice is as little traumatic as possible for victims. The legal process can be daunting, as can the adversarial style of criminal trials, and many authentic victims could easily be cowed by this process. Nevertheless, the process—its imperfections not denied—is designed to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Thus the burden of proof is to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The principle once invoked was that it were better the guilty go free than the innocent be condemned. Justice is a two-way street, and the traffic flow can be complex and difficult to manage.
All that said, no reasonable person I have spoken to and who is sufficiently familiar with the case, as also many non-Catholic commentators in print, can be satisfied that Cardinal Pell’s guilt was established beyond reasonable doubt. No comment is here being made about the complainant; it is the judicial process in question here. It has been seen to be glaringly deficient in the state of Victoria. Pell has been a combative cleric, standing against the tide of secular fashions to assert traditional Catholic teaching. In a highly, often militantly, secular country like Australia such a stance made him enemies. It should be no surprise that many were happy to believe the worst of Pell when, finally, some mud was thrown at him. It is easy for us to accept easily as true anything said against those we abhor. It is very telling that the Victorian Police began actively investigating Pell in 2013, before any complaint had been received by them. They went fishing. Some would argue that fish were subsequently added to the pond to ensure a catch.
So, I am not writing really as an advocate of Cardinal Pell personally, whose virtues and courage I respect and whose less winning qualities I acknowledge. However, if he is a victim of injustice, as the evidence as presented demonstrates clearly enough to me, then he deserves justice, however late it is in coming. Yet this about more than Pell. The successful prosecution of a cardinal constitutes a blow against the Church and its mission, all the stronger because it is unjust. Time may reveal a silver lining to this cloud; the Church has always prospered spiritually under persecution. That is the macro level; on the micro level there are individuals who have a right to justice, not just for their own sake but for the rest of the flock. If they can get a cardinal on such glaringly inadequate evidence, no cleric is safe.
Complainants deserve justice too, naturally. However, a deficient judicial system might gain them a victory but it will fail to retain the lustre of justice under scrutiny. I would have thought that an authentic victim would want the perpetrator convicted without any taint attaching to the process. They deserve impeccable justice, not victory by any means. Victory and justice are not synonymous, as history is witness.
So do read two articles pushing no Catholic barrow which will prepare you well for the High Court’s deliberations, revealing the issues involved and the grave doubts surrounding the conviction of Cardinal Pell. The verdict will not please everyone; that, alas, is inevitable. But it must be just; and we would argue, it must please God, the final and supreme judge whose justice no one will avoid.
The first article is an excellent, dispassionate analysis of the conviction and the issues arising from it. It is by RJ Smith, a young Paris-based academic writing at Quillette. His own website, Polite, is a refreshing find; I might not necessarily always agree with him but he argues soundly and is, as his website title suggests, non-polemical.
The second article is by Chris Friel, a mathematician in Cardiff, who has made forensic and damning investigations not only of Pell’s trial and appeal, but of issues in the background to it, on his Academia page. The article I am proposing to you, at Big News Network, offers some interesting links and references at the end if you feel so inclined to follow them.
I cannot help thinking that the verdict of the High Court will be a watershed moment for Australia whichever way it goes.