This Is a Mighty Triumph for George Pell. Now Prepare for a Storm of Rage from the Cardinal's Supporters
By David Marr
April 7, 2020
By the ultimate authority we recognise in this country, Pell was wrongly imprisoned. His supporters will vent but will Rome join his celebrations?
|Cardinal George Pell leaves Barwon prison. ‘The unanimity of the court’s decision is crushing for Pell’s prosecutors and, of course, for the young man who brought this complaint to the police nearly five years ago.’ Photograph: James Ross/AAP|
his is a mighty triumph not just for George Pell who is breathing free air for the first time in a year, and his backers who invested millions in his defence, but for the narrative of prejudice the church has spun all the years since the Melbourne police came for the cardinal in Rome.
The beleaguered church. The misunderstood church. The church under attack by secularists. The church pursued by abuse victims, police and journalists with axes to grind.
The unanimity of the court’s decision is crushing for Pell’s prosecutors and, of course, for the young man who brought this complaint to the police nearly five years ago. It has been such a long process for Pell’s accuser to reach this end.
From the start the contest was simple: who was to be believed here, the young man who said he was raped after mass in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral or the church witnesses assembled by Pell’s legal team who claimed it wasn’t possible.
The police, the prosecution authorities in Victoria, a jury and two judges of the court of appeal in Melbourne believed the young man. They realised it was hard for Pell to have raped that boy, but it was possible.
The high court has said: yes possible, but not reasonably possible.
Theirs was not a decision made at a lofty level of theory. As has been its practice lately, the high court dug right down into the evidence. The unanimous judgment delivered this morning involves more than a hundred paragraphs of meticulous reconstruction of the rituals of the cathedral, of doors opened and closed, of robes and processions.
The judges do not accuse the young man of being a liar or a fantasist. They do not find his evidence contained discrepancies or displayed inadequacies “of such a character as to require the jury to have entertained a doubt as to guilt”.
But they have done what the jury and the Victorian court of appeal did not do: they have trusted absolutely the evidence of Pell’s master of ceremonies Monsignor Charles Portelli. This church official said he was with the archbishop at all times that morning, first on the steps of the cathedral farewelling the faithful and then in the sacristy helping him unrobe.
The high court observed that Portelli’s evidence of having an actual recall of being with Pell on the steps was never challenged by the prosecution. Believe Portelli here and it is hard to believe the man who accuses Pell of rape.
The court did what the prosecution argued all the way should not be done: it compounded all the improbabilities to establish doubt.
Rather than adding they multiplied the improbabilities. So the judges concluded that even though they found the young man’s accusations “credible and reliable” the jury “acting rationally” should have “entertained a doubt” as to Pell’s guilt and not put those doubts aside.
“Plainly they did. Making full allowance for the advantages enjoyed by the jury, there is a significant possibility in relation to [the sacristy charges] that an innocent person has been convicted.”
Tolling through their honours’ judgement is the word “unchallenged”. Pell’s acquittal relies almost entirely on the failure of the prosecution to challenge – let alone destroy – the evidence of the old cathedral officials and former choir boys in the witness box.
The prosecution found gaps but never tore down the fence protecting Pell.
Long term, the court’s decision reinforces scepticism in senior legal circles about prosecution of accusations of sex crimes committed a long time ago. The question that has yet to be fully explored is how the law operates here when time has placed everyone – the accused, accusers, police and prosecutors – at such a disadvantage.
Pell is innocent of these charges. By the ultimate authority we recognise in this country, he was wrongly imprisoned. He has issued a statement offering Christian forgiveness to his tormentors. He can leave it now to his supporters to rage on his behalf. It is going to be a mighty storm. Category Five.
What will be very interesting to watch is whether Rome joins the celebrations.
Further work awaits Pell’s lawyers and further bills for his supporters to pay. Victims’ lawyers claim eight civil suits at least are under way to make the church pay for Pell’s alleged failures to protect them from paedophiles.
And as early as today, we will discover, at last, the royal commission’s verdict on the career that took a Ballarat priest who noticed so little about these crimes on his home turf all the way to the highest echelons of the Vatican.