Guest Columnists

Australian Justice In the Dock

Consider this sequence of events, familiar to some but evidently not to others:

March 2013: Prior to any credible reports of misbehavior being made against Cardinal George Pell, police in Australia’s state of Victoria launch “Operation Tethering,” a sting aimed at the former archbishop of Melbourne (who by this time is prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the economy). “Tethering” includes newspaper ads seeking information on previously unreported, untoward goings-on at the Melbourne cathedral in the past.

Early 2017: The office of Public Prosecutions in Melbourne twice returns a brief to those who mounted “Operation Tethering,” criticizing the Victoria Police brief as inadequate for a prosecution.

June 2017: Charges of “historic sexual abuse” from 20 years prior are announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions and Pell is ordered home. The cardinal denies any misconduct and, despite his Vatican diplomatic immunity, immediately returns to Australia to defend his honor and that of the Church.

May 2018: At the “committal hearing,” a magistrate dismisses several charges against Pell but sends others to trial, saying that, whatever their arguable plausibility, they should be aired publicly in a criminal court.

September 2018: At the trial, the prosecution presents no evidence that the alleged crimes ever took place; the prosecution’s case is the tale told by the complainant, who only appears on videotape. Witnesses for the defense testify that the alleged acts of abuse could not have happened in a secured area of a busy cathedral right after Sunday Mass, with then-Archbishop Pell fully vested and surrounded by liturgical ministers, in the time-frame alleged.  After several days of deliberation, the trial judge tells the jury that he will accept an 11-1 verdict, if one juror is blocking unanimity. The jury then returns a hung verdict — 10-2 for acquittal — the jury foreman weeping when announcing the jury’s inability to reach a legal conclusion; other jurors are also reported in tears. 

December 2018: At Cardinal Pell’s retrial, his defense team further demolishes the prosecution case. The jury then returns a 12-0 verdict of guilty, shocking virtually everyone in attendance at the trial (including the trial judge).

March 2019: While sentencing the cardinal to six years in prison, the trial judge never indicates that he agrees with the second jury’s verdict, stating only that he is doing what the law requires under the circumstances. 

June 2019: At an appeal hearing before a three-member panel of the Victoria Supreme Court, the judges sharply criticize the flimsiness of the prosecution’s case.

August 21, 2019: The appellate panel rejects Cardinal Pell’s appeal by a 2-1 vote. The dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is Australia’s most prominent criminal-law jurist; the two judges rejecting the appeal have little or no criminal-law experience. Judge Weinberg’s 202-page dissent eviscerates his colleagues’ position, which raises the gravest questions as to whether “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” remains the standard for conviction in Victoria — not least on a completely uncorroborated charge.

In the wake of last month’s incomprehensible and dangerous rejection of Cardinal Pell’s appeal, Catholic voices were heard expressing (or demanding) respect for the justice system in Australia. Perhaps the Vatican must say such things for diplomatic purposes, although the reason why diplomatic concerns trump truth and justice in the Holy See Press Office is unclear. But as this chronology indicates, there is no reason to respect a process that reeks of system-failure at every point, from the dubious and perhaps corrupt investigation through the committal hearing, the two trials, and the appeal. There are guilty parties here. But Cardinal Pell is not one of them.

As this process approaches the High Court of Australia, friends of Australia, both Down Under and throughout the world, must send a message, repeatedly: George Pell is an innocent man who was falsely accused and has been unjustly convicted of crimes he did not commit. It is not Pell who is in the dock, now, but the administration of justice in Australia. And the only way to restore justice is for Cardinal Pell to be vindicated by the highest court in the land.

Those who cannot bring themselves to say that, in Australia or elsewhere, necessarily share in the ignominy that Australian criminal justice has, thus far, brought upon itself.


Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

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