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  • Writer's pictureDavid James Connolly

Presumption of guilt

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The Pell case is a contemporary Australian version of the infamous Dreyfus case in 19th century France and may even spawn a comparable literature. So far there are three substantial books: Keith Windschuttle’s The Persecution of George Pell, which I reviewed here earlier; and now there are two more; Frank Brennan’s and Gerard Henderson’s. Plus there are the three volumes of the cardinal’s prison diary, the first of which I also reviewed here.

What’s not both to enthral and repel in this story of Australian Catholicism’s greatest churchman, brought low by an allegation of child sex abuse, humiliated and imprisoned, only to be vindicated, triumphantly, by a seven-nil High Court verdict to the effect that he should never have been investigated, never have been charged, never have been convicted and never have been gaoled. What was really on trial here was the Australian system of justice: how susceptible it was to public hysteria, media stereotyping and lynch-mob justice so at odds with the traditional presumption of innocence. The verdict, albeit only at the last gasp, thanks to the High Court, is that it’s still capable of delivering justice according to law; but not before a fine man had had his reputation officially trashed, several years of his life stolen, and massive legal bills incurred that he has yet to re-pay. Yes, the cardinal had a win – but this was not a fight he should ever have been in.

Only because the Catholic Church had been judged collectively guilty of institutionalised sexual abuse and, therefore, needed to be punished; and only because Pell had become the personification of that church was a process put in place that, until its very end, but for his faith in divine providence and in his own innocence, would have put the cardinal into a very dark place. Of course, in the sloppily disciplined post-Vatican II church of the Sixties and Seventies there does seem to have been an unusually large number of pedophiles exploiting the cover and the opportunities of clerical life. And because abuse at the hands of God’s servants is such a monstrous betrayal, it’s to the church’s particular shame that this wasn’t realised and acted upon sooner. Paradoxically, Pell was actually one of the very first senior churchmen anywhere in the world to confront it directly: sacking deviant priests and reporting them to the police rather than simply forgiving their sins while moving them on. Perhaps this is why Windschuttle (who’s not a Catholic), Henderson (now a ‘cultural’ Catholic) and Brennan (a Jesuit intellectual, to be sure, but often Pell’s antagonist on theology and ecclesiology) have come so staunchly to his defence.

As expected of a trained lawyer, Brennan focuses on the extreme implausibility of the prosecution’s case. The idea that a fifty-something archbishop, of exemplary life and reputation, would or could slip out of the procession concluding High Mass; and, without anyone noticing, sneak back into the sacristy to commit enormities on two unknown 13-year-old choirboys, all while fully robed and in the space of six minutes, was never credible. Especially when a succession of witnesses testified to Pell’s invariable practice of going to the front of the cathedral to greet parishioners. What’s extraordinary is the lengths to which Victoria Police went on operation ‘Get Pell’: launching an investigation without a complaint; advertising for victims; disregarding and ignoring contrary evidence; and leaking to the media.

The fact that this vendetta was led by two police officers who went on to become successive chief commissioners says everything about the sorry state of Victorian officialdom. In any system that valued integrity, the current commissioner would have resigned in shame for sponsoring such an obviously flawed and prejudiced prosecution; as would the appeal judges who were so blind to such palpable faults.

But as always in the people’s republic of Victoria, no one takes any responsibility or accepts any blame; the public seems to accept that there’s ‘nothing to see here’; and the plethora of entities from the parliamentary opposition down that should hold officialdom to account are incapable of anything other than futile hand-wringing. Brennan’s conclusion: that ‘but for the incompetence and animus of the Victoria Police, the DPP, and the two most senior judges of the state, Pell would have been cleared of those charges much sooner, or more likely, not charged at all’ makes his further observation that ‘the Victorian criminal justice system cries out for reform’ a masterly piece of understatement!

Henderson’s J’Accuse…! extends beyond the police and the judiciary to the media and the Gillard government’s royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse which, as he makes clear, could be shoddy and biased. Here’s Henderson on the to-ing and fro-ing between Vic Pol, desperate to charge Pell, and the DPP, initially deeply hesitant: The case was sent by Victoria Police to the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions which sent the matter back to Victoria Police which sent the matter back to the DPP which sent the matter back to Victoria Police which sent the matter back to the DPP which sent the matter back to Victoria Police stating that it could lay charges against Pell if it wished. Which, eventually, it did.

As befits our most dogged and shrewd critic of sloppy journalism, Henderson is forensic in his exposure of the barrage of anti-Pell smear. Here he is on the media pile-on, particularly from the ABC: ‘The campaign against Pell was unrelenting across its main television (7.30, Four Corners, Lateline, News Breakfast) and radio (AM, The World Today, PM, Radio National Breakfast) outlets. The ABC also commissioned special programs which contained attacks on Pell –…Unholy Silence…Guilty…plus…Goliath.’ The conferral of a Walkley Award on one of the anti-Pell diatribes, Fallen – even after the High Court’s dismissal of the case against him – exemplified the intractable media hostility to the man who once joked, when asked about the church position on the Gay Mardi Gras, ‘Well, we’re not going to sponsor a float, if that’s what you mean’.

Both authors deserve our gratitude for their defence of the presumption of innocence and their insistence that justice according to law must prevail over guilt by association and accusation.

Still, not in Victoria, where the response of the Premier to Pell’s release was: ‘I make no comment about today’s High Court decision. But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse: I see you, I hear you, I believe you’.

Author: Tony Abbott

Best regards,

David James Connolly

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