Pell in purgatory

Inside Story

April 13, 2020

By Jeremy Gans

If the High Court is right about the evidence on timing, what went wrong during the prosecution and hearings?

When George Pell’s jury announced its verdict at 3.45pm on Tuesday 11 December 2018, just one thing was certain about his case: it would end in the High Court of Australia. Pell was always going to appeal any finding of guilt to Victoria’s Court of Appeal and whoever lost there (Pell again, in the event) was always going to turn to Canberra for redress.

How the national court would finish the case was another matter. It could have ended with a whimper, with Pell’s name appearing in an online list of special leave applications with the word “dismissed” next to it. Or it could have ended with a bang, with Australia’s top judges deciding the case for themselves. At 10am last Tuesday, the latter happened, when seven justices swept away earlier decisions by twelve jurors and three judges.

Fourteen months ago, when news of Pell’s guilty verdict belatedly broke, many observers studiously ignored the High Court’s looming role. His critics relished calling Australia’s top Catholic a “convicted paedophile.” Victoria’s premier chastised a former prime minister for visiting him in prison. But Pell’s accuser always knew better: “Everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal.”

Something of the reverse happened last Tuesday, when the High Court revealed what most who attended its Canberra hearing last month already knew: Australia’s cardinal would again be the nation’s biggest story. As Pell was driven from his locked-down prison into a locked-down city, his supporters relished saying that he had been found “innocent.” “Let us #PrayTogether today,” tweeted the Pope for Lent, before garbling a prayer “for all those persons who suffer due to an unjust sentence because of someone had it in for them.” The premier refused to “comment” on the decision, telling “every” victim, “I believe you.”

But Pell’s guilt or innocence on the charges against him has never changed and never will. He did not become less guilty last Tuesday. Nor did he become less innocent on that other Tuesday in 2018. He has been either guilty or innocent of the rape of two children for the past twenty-three years and will remain so forever. No court ruling — or punditry or politics — can alter what actually happened in St Patrick’s Cathedral during six short — or agonisingly long — minutes after a Sunday mass in mid December 1996.

Instead, the proceedings against Pell have always been about how the courts — and the rest of us — will respond to the claim made against him. For the courts, the sole issue is whether Pell’s prosecutors were able to prove beyond reasonable doubt what happened in 1996. In 2018, the jury unanimously decided that the prosecution had proved what happened, which is why Pell spent most of 2019 in Barwon Prison. Last Tuesday, the High Court unanimously decided that it hadn’t, which is why Pell will spend most of 2020 in Sydney.

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