On March 11-12, the High Court of Australia will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse.” The High Court has seven judges and a majority vote is required to decide an appeal. In a high-profile case like this, it is expected that all seven judges will sit for the appeal, although in some instances only five sit. There is no set time-line for the High Court to render its decision.
Should the High Court reverse Cardinal Pell’s conviction, a verdict of “acquitted” will be entered in his case and the cardinal will be immediately released from prison. Should the High Court uphold the conviction, the reputation of Australian criminal justice will be gravely and permanently damaged, just as the reputation of French military justice was destroyed by the false conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus – another innocent man victimized by rancid politics and irrational religious prejudice.
Cardinal Pell’s first appeal, to the Supreme Court of the State of Victoria, was rejected last August by the 2-1 vote of a three-judge panel. The lengthy dissenting opinion by dissenting by Justice Mark Weinberg – the only judge on the panel with criminal law experience – has been praised as a masterpiece of legal reasoning. More to the immediate point, it has become clear in the past five months that the Weinberg opinion eviscerated the credibility of the prosecution case against Cardinal Pell as well as the opinions of the two judges who upheld the cardinal’s conviction (which, it will be remembered, came on a unanimous vote in a second trial after Pell’s first trial ended in a hung jury, reported to have been heavily in favor of the cardinal’s acquittal).
Justice Weinberg’s opinion clocked in at over two hundred pages. Reduced to essentials, its demolition of the reasoning of the two judges, Justices Anne Ferguson and Chris Maxwell) who upheld the conviction came down to something like this:
1. Ferguson and Maxwell: “After having watched a video of the complainant who charged Cardinal Pell, we found him honest and credible.” [Irrespective of the fact that no evidence, direct or corroborating, was ever presented that the alleged crimes ever occurred, and that the complainant’s account of what happened was seriously called into question by defense witnesses.]
2. Ferguson and Maxwell: “When a witness seemed confused about events that happened two decades ago, we accepted those parts of the evidence that buttress the complainant’s account and dismissed those parts of the evidence that would make the complainant’s account implausible, even impossible.” [Which is to abandon the presumption of innocence that has been a bedrock principal of Anglo-Saxon criminal law for centuries, and to abandon it to such a degree that no defense against the charges could have been possible.]
3. Ferguson and Maxwell: “We therefore conclude that the second jury could be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. We need not reckon with the vast amount of contradictory evidence provided by the defense. We don’t call them liars, just mistaken. We believe the complainant to be ‘credible,’ and that’s that.” [Which is to toss out the jurisprudential window another bedrock principle of Anglo-Saxon criminal law, according to which the prosecution must establish its case “beyond a reasonable doubt” for conviction in a criminal case.]
With the lifting of the press gag rule that kept relevant information about the trial from the Australian public, the prosecution’s literally incredible case, the defense demolition of that case and other crucial facts have been brought to public attention.
Such as the fact that the complainant’s story shifted over time, and under questioning.
And the fact that it was literally impossible for the alleged crimes to have been committed in the time-frame constructed by the prosecution.
And the fact that the complainant’s account of the sacristy area where the crimes were said to have been committed did not accurately describe the area at the time of the alleged crimes – but did accurately describe the area years later (which suggests, not merely confusion, but rehearsed testimony, the rehearsal being conducted by some rather inept people).
And the fact that the Victoria police department, which set up the fishing expedition that eventually led to the complaint of “historic sexual abuse,” has been declared to have been incompetent, inept, wasteful, ineffective, and weak in normal structures of accountability by a distinguished witness before a Royal Commission on the Management of Police Informants, Sir Ken Jones, himself a veteran British police officer, who also stated that the “ambient level of integrity was not as high as it needed to be” during his extensive contacts with the Victoria police.
As for Cardinal Pell, he is, by the accounts of those who have seen him recently, in the best physical shape he’s been in for years; he’s serene, cheerful, and grateful for the time provided by his incarceration to read and write. That in itself testifies to the character of a man confident of his innocence, a man who has said to visitors, “There is only one judgment I fear, and that is the final judgment” – which will not, of course, be rendered by a court.
Australian justice is, and has been, on trial throughout this entire tawdry affair. The burden of restoring reputation of Australian criminal justice now rests squarely with that nation’s highest court. For Cardinal Pell’s sake, and for Australia’s, it must be hoped that, for once, and on its last chance, the Australian justice system will get it right. If it does, an innocent man will be vindicated, and liberated to continue his service to both Church and society.
If it doesn’t, the reputation of Australian law and justice will be in tatters, irrespective of the obscene chortling of the Pell-haters whose bile has already raised the most severe questions about the country’s once-sterling reputation for courage, honesty, and fair play.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His most recent book is The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform.