Australian High Court Overturns Pell Sex Abuse Conviction

The front facade of the Milan Cathedral.

The Australian High Court has overturned a lower appellate court’s ruling in the Cardinal George Pell sexual abuse case. Pell will be released from HM Prison Barwon, a maximum-security facility southwest of Melbourne. The case against Pell lasted four years, ending in his 2018 conviction of five counts of sexual abuse.

“The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place,” the court said in a judgment summary April 7.

At issue in the appeal was whether the jury that convicted Cardinal Pell in December 2018 of sexually abusing two choristers could have plausibly found Pell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, having heard the case presented by the prosecutors and the defense mounted by Cardinal Pell’s lawyers.

The High Court found the appellate court that heard Cardinal Pell’s appeal last year “failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.

The decision received veiled but unambiguous praise from Pope Francis who at the start of mass, celebrated at his lodgings at Santa Marta on Tuesday morning and livestreamed, Pope Francis said: “I would like to pray today for all those people who suffer unjust sentences resulting from intransigence [against them].”

The Vatican also welcomed the acquittal, praising Pell in its first official statement for having “waited for the truth to be ascertained”. The Vatican said it had always had confidence in Australian judicial authorities and reaffirmed the Holy See’s “commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors”.

Francis did not mention Pell by name at mass, but compared the suffering of those inflicted with “unjust sentences” to the way Jewish community elders persecuted Jesus with “obstinacy and rage even though he was innocent”.

However, the High Court’s decision has not received unanimous praise. Rick Sarre, an Adjunct Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at University of South Australia wrote, “How is it that a jury’s decision, after hearing all the evidence (with the exception of Pell himself) and deliberating for a considerable period of time, can be subverted by the opinion of an appeal court 16 months later?”

The professor answered his own question by noting that there are only two options for a High Court decision to overturn a jury verdict – “The first, and far more common, is that there has been an error of law (or fact) in the way that the trial has been conducted, the way evidence has been wrongly admitted, or the way the judge has incorrectly summed up to the jury. The less common basis of appeal is the verdict of the jury is unreasonable, or cannot be supported, given the evidence. The Pell appeal proceeded on this basis, and succeeded.”

Professor Sarre openly questioned whether the High Court should have intervened in such a fashion, subverting the prerogative of a jury, thus undermining the jury system altogether.

Sarre writes, “But in cases such as Pell, the High Court has reinforced the notion that, despite the jury having the primary responsibility of determining the guilt or innocence of a person on trial, its responsibility can be subject to a higher order. This is because, ultimately, the appeal courts have been given an overriding responsibility of determining for themselves whether a jury decision is a safe decision that has not been infected with the hue and cry or matters outside the evidence that was put to them.”

The Pell decision is a huge victory for the institution of the Catholic Church who didn’t want to see one of its most powerful princes locked in prison for a lengthy term. However, the decision undermines the fundamental underpinning of the jury system as well as the credibility of survivors who courageously come forward to speak out against injustice. In most if not all child sex abuse cases involving a priest or minister, the abuse takes place in secret. The abuser and the abused are the only ones present. The High Court took matters into its own hands today and decided that unless there are “witnesses” to the abuse, it must be deemed not credible. That is not justice but a perversion of the justice system and an outrage.

Photo by DAVID TAPIA SAN MARTIN on Unsplash


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