Cardinal George Pell, until recently a high-ranking official in the Vatican, has lost his appeal against a conviction for historic child abuse.

Earlier today the Victorian Court of Appeal announced that it had dismissed his appeal by a vote of 2 to 1 (link to full judgement PDF). 

The Cardinal was convicted in December of five counts of sexual abuse of two 13-year-old choirboys in the mid-90s not long after he had been installed as Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. The alleged attacks on the boys took place in a sacristy and a corridor of St Patrick’s Cathedral. One of the boys denied that he had ever been abused, but he died of an overdose in 2014. The other, now a man in his 30s, was the principal witness for the prosecution.

The Cardinal, who is 79, was sentenced to six years in jail, of which he has already served several months. He will eligible for parole after three years and eight months.

The word “disgraced” is appearing everywhere in headlines above articles on the failure of the Cardinal’s appeal. Today’s news must be devastating for him. He has always insisted that he is innocent. “What a load of absolute and disgraceful rubbish. Completely false. Madness … a load of garbage and falsehood and deranged falsehood,” was his response when interviewed by the Victorian police. 

It certainly is devastating for his supporters. All over the world, Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric is being described as a “convicted paedophile”. It is a champagne-popping moment for his enemies and a terrible blow to the morale of Catholics everywhere.

In her live-streamed summary judgement, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson insisted that it was Pell and only Pell who was on trial:

As the trial judge observed, he was not to be made a scapegoat for any perceived failings of the Catholic Church nor for any failure in relation to child sexual abuse by other clergy. His conviction and sentence could not be a vindication of the trauma suffered by other victims of sexual abuse.

Fine words, and no doubt sincere, but in the eyes of journalists and on social media the Catholic Church’s commitment to protecting children, its bizarre belief in celibacy for its priests, and its antediluvian sexual morality were also on trial. And it has been convicted.

Pell’s lawyers immediately announced that they will attempt to appeal to the High Court of Australia. But there is no guarantee that the High Court will hear his case. It is quite possible that the Cardinal will die in jail.

However, there are still firm grounds for believing Pell’s steadfast avowals of his innocence. The prosecution’s case rests upon the testimony of a single witness – one of the two boys who were allegedly abused. Only one. No one outside the court even knows who he is. Under the law, victims of sexual abuse have the right to have their names suppressed.

Against his word was Pell’s indignant denial that he had ever done anything so sordid. He was supported by a number of “opportunity witnesses” who testified that the alleged abuse was all but impossible, given the crowd, the timetable of events on the day and the configuration of the cathedral.

Yet the jury which unanimously convicted him in December and two of the three appeal judges, Chief Justice Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell, accepted his testimony. They said:

the complainant was a very compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth … Throughout his evidence, [the complainant] came across as someone who was telling the truth. He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution. As might have been expected, there were some things which he could remember and many things which he could not. And his explanations of why that was so had the ring of truth.

But the other judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, had a completely different opinion.

In his dissenting judgment, Justice Weinberg found that, at times, the complainant was inclined to embellish aspects of his account. He concluded that his evidence contained discrepancies, displayed inadequacies, and otherwise lacked probative value so as to cause him to have a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt. He could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted, particularly in relation to the second incident.

How could three learned, experienced lawyers have such different views of a complainant’s credibility? 

But in the end, this was the only evidence that mattered. Pell’s own credibility, supported by his denials, several “opportunity witnesses”, countless character witnesses, a blameless record before and after the alleged events, and a lifetime of generous public service, counted for nothing.

All of the processes have been followed. All of the procedures have been flawless. But if this is justice, it stinks. 

What lessons are there in this miscarriage of justice? Two for legislators and two for Catholics.

First, the possibility of convicting someone on the anonymous testimony of a victim without corroborating evidence has to be re-examined. Yes, it means that sexually abused children won’t be ignored. But it also means that innocent defendants will be convicted. Without detriment to the victims, the law of evidence needs to be refined to protect people against false or fabulated allegations.

Second, Pell’s conviction is a paradigm of how to destroy a controversial public figure.

In Pell’s case, Victorian police set up Taskforce Sano to trawl for historic complaints about him. Unsurprisingly, they eventually found a convincing one. The Twittersphere was set alight with hatred for Pell. ABC journalist Louise Milligan wrote a book about his alleged crimes. The media painted him in demonic colours. No wonder the jury convicted him. His personal credibility had been trashed.

If it can happen to Pell, it can happen to anyone in public life who had contact with children decades ago – teachers, doctors, scout masters, coaches … anyone. Journalists and Twitter make a great team, especially if they have the help of the police.

Third, guilty or innocent – and I will go to my grave averring Pell’s innocence – Cardinal George Pell is not the Catholic Church. Catholics should remember the famous words of St Augustine, whose early life was far from blameless. He was defending the Catholics of his day against allegations that their bishop was corrupt:

'Augustine is a bishop in the Catholic Church. He bears his burden and he will have to give an account of it to God. I met him in the company of good men. If he is a bad man, he will know it. But even if he is good, it is not in him that I have put my trust, because the first thing I learned in the Catholic Church is not to put my hope in any man.

Fourth, there are simply no grounds for finding Cardinal Pell guilty in a canonical trial. If this happened, he could not only be stripped of his religious honours but laicised, that is, defrocked and removed from the ranks of the clergy. The Vatican should resist pressure to uncritically accept the standards of “Australian justice”. It should take note of the strong opinion of Justice Weinberg who maintains that: “The only order that can properly be made is that the applicant be acquitted on each charge … I cannot, in good conscience, do other than to maintain my dissent.”

The Catholic Church has been here before. Over the centuries, countless bishops have been vilely defamed and jailed by governments in order to discredit them. Take Aloysius Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb, Croatia, for instance. He was found guilty of treason and collaboration with fascists during World War II and died in jail. He was martyred by Communists; Cardinal Pell is being martyred by Twitter. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet