Cardinal George Pell, formerly a senior figure in the Vatican, and successively Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, convicted last year on five counts of child sexual abuse, has been sentenced to six years in jail, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months. The sentencing judge, Justice Peter Kidd, acknowledged that it was possible that the 77-year-old Cardinal will die in jail.

It must have been the hardest sentencing decision ever for Justice Kidd. He knew that it would be reported around the world and would provoke outrage from both those who believe in Pell's devilish malevolence and those who believe in his innocence.. “Not long enough!!! 6 years. Burn in hell Pell!” wrote one woman on Facebook. Twitter was ablaze. This is a pale reflection of the fury of those who see Pell as the Australian archetype of all clerical sex abuse and of all clerical cover-ups.

Applying the “balanced and steady hand of justice”, in the judge’s words, in this incendiary atmosphere required a cool head and a sharp mind. Under the circumstances, and given that he was required to accept as indisputable facts all of the allegations of the victim, Justice Kidd did a commendable job. He was brutal in describing Pell as “breathtakingly arrogant” and “brazen” while still insisting on his right to justice before the law, not a lynch mob.

And before the law, Cardinal Pell is now a convicted sex offender, although a Court of Appeal will hear his appeal in June.

In the meantime, there are lessons for everyone in the most controversial criminal case in Australia since Lindy Chamberlain’s conviction in 1982 for killing her infant daughter. (She was subsequently exonerated.)

Lessons for victims of child sexual abuse. The verdict and the sentence demonstrates that justice can be done, that the legal system will work for them, and that the police will hear their complaints sympathetically. No matter how famous or prominent their attacker may have been, the law will back them.

However, there is a flip side to this message. Victimhood, real or imagined, has become a source of power. The Pell trial shows that the victim will be presumed to be truthful when he steps into the witness box. This power can easily be abused. Just look at the case of American actor Jussie Smollett, who (allegedly) falsely claimed that he was beaten and berated with homophobic and racial slurs by thugs who tied a noose around his neck. Police now say that he was dissatisfied with his salary and was posing as a victim of Trump supporters wearing ski masks and MAGA caps.

Lessons for the Catholic Church. Expect more allegations against leading figures in the Church. Some will be justified, like those against the odious former Archbishop of Washington DC, Ted McCarrick. But others will be just as controverted as Pell’s case. It passed unnoticed in Australia, but last week France’s senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted of failing to report a known paedophile priest to police – a charge which is easy to allege, hard to prove and which he vehemently denies.

And the media is always going to lend a helping hand by connecting the dots. Today’s issue of the New York Times ties the Pell story in with the murder of a defrocked priest living in the Las Vegas area who was running a pornographic website and allegations against two American bishops over sexually harassing adults. The Church can expect allegations to be treated as proven crimes, not in spite of the defendants’ clerical status, but because of it.

Lessons for the law. In other Australian jurisdictions, a defendant as prominent as Cardinal Pell would have tried before a judge. For years before the trial the atmosphere in Victoria, where he was convicted, was thick with the fumes of hatred for Pell and the Catholic Church. It’s reasonable to think that it was all but impossible for someone so controversial to get a fair hearing before a jury. Victoria should amend its legislation to allow judge-only trials in similar circumstances.

Justice Kidd declared that the sentencing hearing was open and transparent — but the trial wasn’t. Cardinal Pell was convicted because of the victim’s sincerity in remembering two traumatic incidents in the late 1990s. The mountain of improbabilities contradicting this version of events was disregarded by the jury. The doctrine of “beyond reasonable doubt” seems to have been ignored — a terrible precedent, especially in cases of sexual abuse. 

As well, the only persons privy to his time in the witness box, apart from the jury, were Cardinal Pell, his lawyers, the prosecutor and the judge. But if a guilty verdict was reached on the intensity of his sincerity rather than on the balance of probabilities, shouldn’t the public have access to the victim’s testimony? Surely his privacy could be respected by blurring his face and disguising his voice digitally.

The secrecy of the most important adverse testimony – the only adverse testimony – in the trial puts the law in disrepute. Pell’s supporters can be justified in complaining that he was convicted in a star chamber.

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It would be rash to predict the outcome of Cardinal Pell’s appeal. But he and his supporters have well-founded reasons to hope that the verdict will be set aside as “unsafe”, that is, unreasonable or unsupported by the evidence. This has happened before in a case similar to Pell’s, although the defendant did not share his notoriety.

A middle-aged teacher in Victoria, Josephine Greensill, spent two-and-a-half years in prison for a crime committed 30 years before — molesting two 8-year-old boys in her Year 3 class. She was convicted in a jury trial with the sentencing judge saying her vile actions had “poisoned and eroded” the victims’ lives. As in Pell’s case, in the words of her lawyer, “there was no medical evidence, no forensic evidence and no eyewitnesses”. The appeal court ruled in 2012 that “The verdicts of guilty are unsafe and unsatisfactory. They cannot be permitted to stand.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.    

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet