Cardinal Pell : a man of sorrows
Cardinal George Pell: a man of sorrows
The case of George Pell revealed deep fault lines in Australian society. Some people were convinced of his innocence, but many others wanted him to be guilty.
The trial, retrial, and conviction in December 2018 of Cardinal Pell for historical child sexual abuse of two choirboys at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral that allegedly occurred in the mid-1990s, gained international attention.
Sensationally, in April 2020, all seven judges of the High Court of Australia quashed Pell’s conviction.
On April 7, 2020 at 10am, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel quoted from the unanimous judgment: “It is evident that there is a possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.” That Tuesday morning, as a high-profile convicted pedophile, Cardinal Pell was in solitary confinement at the maximum security Barwon Prison, near Geelong. He had been incarcerated in various prisons for 405 days.
As Gerard Henderson documents in this scrupulously researched book, the High Court’s decision had huge reverberations. Even though the evidence against him was weak, most of Pell’s opponents, in Australia and overseas, retain their unambiguously entrenched positions.
Henderson argues, convincingly, that the Cardinal’s many antagonists continue to deny him the presumption of innocence.
He also explains that Pell’s defenders, including the constitutional lawyer, Professor Greg Craven, accentuate the fact that much of the Australian media “got it hopelessly wrong”.
Most media, academic and political commentary about Pell was highly critical and hostile. Victoria’s ALP Socialist Left Premier Daniel Andrews castigated Tony Abbott for his December 2019 visit to his friend, the cardinal, in the Melbourne Assessment Prison, as “shameful, absolutely shameful”. After the High Court’s unanimous acquittal, Andrews stated that a complainant is always a “victim” who must be believed. But sometimes people, including complainants, have clear recollections of events that never happened.
Appropriately, the most important chapter in Cardinal Pell is “The Fallibility of Memory and Collective Guilt”. About child sexual abuse, Henderson quotes Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2016): “We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories … which seem, to the victim, every bit as real as true memories. This is so counterintuitive that juries are easily swayed by sincere but false testimony from witnesses.”
The prosecution against Pell, who had recently been appointed Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, rested entirely on the accuracy of witness A’s memory. There was no other evidence against Pell and, as Henderson writes, “a lot of evidence which suggests that he did not have the opportunity to commit crimes against A or the late B inside St Patrick’s Cathedral”.
This was after a Solemn Sunday Mass, at which hundreds of people were present. Both boys were then 13.
The High Court decision noted that “A made his first complaint about the alleged assaults in June 2015. The prosecution case was wholly dependent upon the acceptance of the truthfulness and the reliability of A’s evidence. By the time A made his complaint, B had died in accidental circumstances. In 2001, B had been asked by his mother whether he had ever been ‘interfered with or touched up’ while in the Cathedral choir. He said that he had not.”
Henderson makes a cogent case that Pell bore collective guilt for the sexual crimes and abuses of others. In The Age on February 28, 2019, Bernadette Nunn wrote that “Pell’s conviction is vindication for victims everywhere”.
When the cardinal’s conviction was quashed, The Canberra Times carried an article by Megan Neil on April 8, 2020 headed: “High Court’s decision to release Pell ‘devastates’ survivors.”
When he was at St Patrick’s College Ballarat, Pell was an excellent student who became school captain and a star footballer. He had to make what he has said was a difficult choice between studying for the priesthood or playing for Richmond.
Instead of trying out with the Tigers, in 1960 he entered Corpus Christi College, Werribee. He was one of 115 students. In those halcyon days, Pell couldn’t have envisaged the tumultuous events that would later envelop him.
In Cardinal Pell, The Media Pile-On & Collective Guilt, Henderson crucially demonstrates how the case against Pell presented by the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions fell apart during the High Court hearing, due to an utter inability to explain how the alleged offences could have occurred.
The final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was only released in May 2020, a month after the High Court’s 7-zip decision to quash Pell’s conviction. In this substantial and salient book, Henderson demonstrates that the findings with respect to Pell were not supported by evidence. This matters for justice.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. His most recent novel is The Lowest Depths (Hybrid)co-written with Ian McFadyen.
The Weekend Australian, December 11-12, 2021, Review, Books, pp 16-17.