It was always an inherently implausible accusation: that Australia’s most senior Catholic prelate had sexually assaulted choir boys after Mass in the cathedral. In 1996, George Pell was an archbishop in his mid-50s with no suspect history. A cathedral after Sunday Mass is always thronged with people. The notion that two choirboys could disappear from a procession into an empty sacristy where a fully robed archbishop could make them perform oral sex, with nothing seen or said by anyone for 20 years, until one of the choir boys came forward during a hue and cry about the church covering up sexual crimes; well, it would hardly pass the pub test. Yet the Victorian police began an investigation before they had a complaint, a prosecution was launched on the basis of one uncorroborated statement, and then a conviction was secured despite abundant testimony that the allegation was improbable verging on impossible; a conviction that an appeal court refused to touch on the basis that the jury was entitled to believe the complainant.
As former academic, prolific author, and editor of Quadrant, Keith Windschuttle makes clear in this powerful analysis, it could only happen in a climate where the church was pre-judged as morally corrupt, priests were thought of as sexually suspect, and the law was expected to make an example of delinquency in high places. The most disturbing element in this account of a modern day Salem witch trial is that it had to go all the way to the High Court before the ordinary principles of justice were applied. The real scandal is that the Victorian police and judicial hierarchy that was complicit in this persecution of an innocent man remains entirely unrepentant and in place.
Of course, there have been a small number of deviant priests who took horrible advantage of vulnerable youngsters in their care. And there were weak and befuddled bishops, especially at a time of post-Vatican II doctrinal confusion, who put avoiding scandal ahead of stamping out wrong-doing. The irony of this case is that Pell was one of the very first bishops to report offending priests to police and to remove them from parishes; rather than just counsel them, shift them to the other side of town, and hope that they’d learned the error of their ways. He was the first Australian bishop to treat sexual misconduct with minors as a crime that needed to be eliminated rather than a sin that might readily be forgiven. If Pell hadn’t already upset enough people with his doctrinal orthodoxy, scepticism towards climate change and friendship with John Howard, his uncompromising approach towards priestly sexual indulgence turned out to be another reason to damn him and rejoice in his undoing. To everyone inclined to reject traditional Catholicism, from the Victorian premier down, not only was Pell the embodiment of all they disliked, here were grounds for damning him as a total hypocrite too. It is to the ever-lasting discredit of the Victorian police that having largely turned their backs to clerical offences in the 1970s and 80s, they finally mounted a vendetta against the wrong man. As Windschuttle puts it: Pell’s ‘prize for reforming the system was a decade of accusations, interrogations, arrest, trial, and ultimately, a prison sentence: the traditional rewards of a Christian martyr’.
Windschuttle forensically examines all of the various allegations made against Pell and concludes that they were either impossible because Pell simply could not have been present when and where the supposed wrong-doing occurred; highly unlikely because of the inconsistencies in the claimants’ stories; or not very credible because of the history and character of his accusers. None of this prevented Victoria Police launching a Get Pell campaign, well prior to any formal complaint being made. The principal architect was the deputy commissioner, subsequently commissioner, Graham Ashton, who was routinely to describe complainants as ‘victims’. In late 2012, Taskforce Sano, with ten detectives, was set up to investigate sexual abuse by priests and in March 2013, Operation Tethering was established specifically to investigate possible offences by Pell, even though the first actual complaint didn’t come till June 2015; and had originally begun as a claim, via the activist group Broken Rites, from the choirboy’s mother against a different priest. In announcing that Pell had been charged, the then deputy commissioner, now commissioner, Shane Patton, claimed falsely and repeatedly that the cardinal was facing ‘multiple charges and multiple complainants’.
Windschuttle attributes the different outcomes in Pell’s two jury trials to the release, and wall-to-wall coverage, just prior to the second, of the report of the sexual abuse royal commission and the constant reiteration, from the Prime Minister down, of the refrain that ‘victims must be believed’; even though the commission reported to police fewer than 3000 of the 9000 incidents it considered. He cites former High Court justice Michael McHugh’s dictum that ‘juries are likely to be affected by the prejudices and even the hysterias that from time to time are found in the community’. After weighing all the available evidence, especially the magisterial dissent of Justice Weinberg in the first appeal, Windschuttle concludes that the majority, Chief Justice Ferguson and Appeal Court President Maxwell, had needed to ‘bend over backwards’ to support a conclusion that the High Court unanimously and scathingly rejected. Yet the Victorian legal establishment has subsequently closed ranks around both judges, notwithstanding their palpable failure to appreciate the need for a criminal conviction to be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Despite Pell’s ultimate vindication, this is a grim tale of hysteria, finger-pointing, deep prejudice against the teaching and especially the celibate priesthood of the Catholic Church, and institutional failure. Yes, there’s relief that eventually justice was done; but at such cost to an innocent man who can never quite get back his life and his reputation; all because victims ‘have to be believed’. While Pell could doubtless always take comfort, knowing that he was innocent in the eyes of God, for those of lesser faith it’s hard not to despair.
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