Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in the Oscar-winning 1962 film

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most studied novels by students of English in Australia and of course, the United States. It depicts a very particular time and place: Alabama in the Deep South, in the 1930s, when the country was imbued with racism, often violent, towards African Americans. Its author, Harper Lee, shines a spotlight on this prejudice with her tragic story of an upstanding young black man, Tom Robinson, on trial for the rape of a white woman.

Some of the novel’s most powerful scenes take place in the Maycomb County Courthouse, where local lawyer Atticus Finch calmly and methodically cross-examines the complainant, Miss Mayella Ewell.

He quickly picks holes in her story. Mayella claims to have been punched on the right side of her face, although Tom Robinson’s crippled left arm made that impossible.

Atticus is able create more than reasonable doubt that Tom Robinson did not rape Mayella, and that in fact, her father, Bob Ewell, was responsible for her injuries. Despite overwhelming evidence underming Mayella’s accusations (that even Atticus’ children, Scout and Jem, are able to comprehend) the jury finds Tom guilty.

Like all good literature, To Kill a Mockingbird is relevant to times and places beyond its own. It is a story about an egregious miscarriage of justice against an innocent man, inflicted by men who “carry their resentments into the jury box”. In this regard, Lee also presents us with a victim, prey to misfortune and the prejudices and of her time, who did not tell the truth.

I am sure that the vast majority of victims of sexual abuse tell the truth. There are few among us who would bear false witness in such manner, risking the reputation of another, as well as our own, with lies. Those who come forward are courageous and ought to listened to and treated with respect and sensitivity. Indeed, society’s willingness to listen is based on revelations of systematic abuse in both secular and religious institutions.

Nevertheless, history and literature tell us that sometimes accusations aren’t entirely truthful. People can be falsely accused.

Lee warns us that prejudice can reach a fever pitch. Scout and Jem are told their father is a “nigger-lover”; his children are attacked by Bob Ewell, drunk and wielding a knife; and Tom Robinson is shot and killed while attempting to escape from jail.  

We mustn’t think that we are above such base actions in the 21st century. Just in the last few days, I saw a Facebook exchange after an 18-year-old girl posted her support for the High Court’s unanimous exoneration of Cardinal Pell. Within a couple of hours, there were over 200 comments on her feed, mostly from students of a similar age.

She was told she “was f*****” and a lover of rapists and paedophiles. Another admitted that there was “no hard evidence” against Pell but that he was “still guilty.” When her friends came to her defence, one of them was told he wouldn’t be listened to because he had a “stupid Catholic name.” We also saw a sacred site of worship for millions of Australian Catholics, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, vandalised with obscenities.

Wouldn’t the reasoning of the majority of the Victorian Court of Appeal also have affirmed Tom Robinson’s conviction?  — that an individual can be found guilty of rape, in a situation where it is simply one person’s word against another and circumstantial evidence calls into question almost every aspect of the allegations.

Fortunately for Cardinal Pell, Australia in 2020 is not Alabama in the 1930s. Like Atticus Finch, the members of the highest court in the land articulated clearly and methodically why the allegations made against Pell were flawed.

In this day and age, we readily accept the possibility that an all-white male jury in America’s Deep South could wrongly convict a black man of rape.

Yet, perhaps due to our lack of perspective or our obliviousness to the anti-Christian and anti-Catholic prejudice fostered by the media and the education sector in Australia, many of us do not seem to be able to appreciate that a jury in Melbourne in 2019 could be unreasonably biased.

In this regard, To Kill A Mockingbird is a cautionary tale to which Australians should pay heed. It reminds us that false accusations and unjust verdicts are an ever-present danger.

Johanna O'Farrell

Johanna O’Farrell is a teacher at Harkaway Hills College in Melbourne.