By: Murray Hunter

George Pell, the priest, bishop, cardinal, the Roman Catholic Church’s highest-ranking official to be defrocked and disgraced, has always generated controversy over his 50-year career. Today, with the 77-year-old Australian prelate’s case up for appeal in the court system, the issue is not about his guilt or innocence but rather whether he received a fair trial.

No case in the past four decades has generated so much controversy.  There is intense emotional debate since a suppression order was lifted on the verdict on Feb. 26. The nation is polarized if not traumatized by the verdict. Much of the debate is extremely heated with many angry about the failings of the church. Others say Pell has been made a scapegoat.  He was convicted upon the evidence of a single person without corroboration or forensic evidence.

Only the judge, jury, and lawyers directly involved in the trial were privy to this evidence. Pell was not allowed to make his plea in front of a jury, the defense wasn’t allowed to show a video showing how it would have been impossible for the acts that he was accused of to have occurred during summing up, and so forth.

Certainly there is plenty of smoke and not a little fire surrounding Pell, a staunch reformer of the finances of the Vatican who carried immense influence within the upper echelons of the church’s hierarchy that made him a hero to some and enemy to others, as he tackled corruption within an Italian bureaucracy that had never been under much scrutiny.

At home in Australia, Pell debated top academics on issues of bioscience and ethics on national forums. He put across conservative views concerning homosexuality, gay marriage, women priests, abortion, and in-vitro fertilization. As Archbishop of Sydney, he refused communion to gay and lesbian parishioners and his views on HIV/AIDs infuriated many sections of the community. He curried favor with many conservative politicians, including former ministers and prime ministers.

But for years there have been questions over his role surrounding sexual abuse in the church. As Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell implemented what was called the Melbourne Response to deal with the rising problem. Initially heralded as a positive move to solve a festering problem, it sought to limit the financial culpability of the church and keep abuse cases secret. Those who took their cases to the court system faced almost insurmountable barriers from the Pell-directed church.  

Although Pell denied that he knew anything about child abuse by other priests in Ballarat, where he was once headmaster at St. Patrick’s, numerous claims have been made including early allegations he had sex with trainee priests, although that is not illegal. Other allegations included sexual abuse at a boys’ camp in 1961, the Eureka Swimming Pool at Ballarat in the 1970s, and during the 1980s at a surf club in Torquay, Victoria, where Pell liked to spend his holidays.

These stories were sometimes reported in the media, with some making it to court.  In addition, stories about priestly abuse of students long echoed through the corridors of St. Patrick’s. Over the years Pell has made a catalogue of denials about all these accusations, with none ever substantiated.

For years, sections of the Victorian Police, known as the ‘Catholic Mafia’ protected errant priests from criminal prosecution. However, with gradually-changing demographics within the police, attitudes against child sexual abuse hardened into a prevailing abhorrence with investigators. The increase in sexual assault investigations this decade in Victoria seems to support this.

Cases against priests have been vigorously pursued by the police investigators within an evolved organizational culture that perceives guilt rather than innocence, bringing questions as to whether any member of the clergy could receive a fair trial under the jury system, which is still compulsory in Victoria.

This leads to one of the many questions about the Pell investigation and trial. Why did police start a specific investigation on Pell when there were so many other complaints of sexual abuse to investigate? It began in 2013 without any complainants. According to Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan, testifying in the Melbourne Magistrates Court, the purpose of ‘Operation Tethering,’ as it was called, was to ascertain whether Pell had committed any crimes which had gone unreported.  

Sheridan went on to testify that the investigation went on for more than a year before any complainants came forward.  The initial brief on charging Pell for child abuse was rejected in late 2016 by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

When charges were at last made in 2017, 21 of 26 were dropped, with only five going to trial. A second set of charges relating to alleged incidents at a swimming pool were all been dropped due to lack of evidence. Robert Richter, Pell’s barrister, during committal hearings suggested that this was a ‘”get Pell operation,”  suggesting the force’s young Turks wanted to overturn any influence from the old Catholic guard.  Staunch Catholic media commentator and political analyst George Weigel believes a group within the Vatican wanted to get rid of Pell.

Others within the community were angry that those protesting Pell’s innocence showed a total disregard to victims of crimes perpetrated by members of the clergy.  

As uncorroborated evidence is allowed in child sex abuse cases, the issue for the jury was whether they believed testimony of the complainant over any defense put forward. The defense for instance presented a witness, Monsignor Charles Pontellid, who testified under oath that Cardinal Pell was with him the whole time of the alleged offense while at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with a number of corroborative witnesses.

One of the issues to contend with in cases where there is a long time lapse between the abuse and trial, is the phenomenon of corrupted memory. Research has shown that trauma, and outside influences such as the media can result in an objectively false memory which the person strongly believes has occurred.

There is much evidence to support this hypothesis. The long passage of time can bring memory decay, and a person acquiring new information can develop memory distortion.  An analysis of police interviews has shown that too many closed-ended questions, frequent interruption of a witness, and predetermined questions can lead to false recollections in criminal investigations.

Some commentators claimed that Pell nor any priest could get a fair trial by jury, which is mandatory in Victoria, due to media sensationalism, with what has been likened to a kangaroo court in church-sponsored media. In the wake of criticism the court was receiving from certain sections of the media, a recording of the initial Pell interview in Rome on Oct. 16, 2017, before he was charged, was released to the public. This interview clearly showed Pell’s reaction to hearing the charges. In addition, Chief County Court Judge Kidd allowed the sentence to be broadcast live on national television and radio for the first time in the court’s history.

Kidd’s summary and description of the indecent acts and sexual penetration shocked many and brought a dark and sordid reality to the verdict. His explanation of the methodology of sentencing brought some respect back to the court.

The trial was extremely risky on the part of the prosecution to run with, especially with the first mistrial. The public may never become enlightened about the true motivation of the police. The appeal before a judge will have immense consequences for the integrity of the court, the ability of the legal system to deal with priests charged with child abuse, the Catholic Church internationally, and Pell himself.

The centerpiece of the appeal will be whether it was possible for the act to have physically occurred.  The test here for the appellate judges is whether the crimes occurred beyond a reasonable doubt. This may lead to the judges re-examining the weight of testimonies that the jury had to consider.

Several legal opinions state that Pell has a good chance of winning an appeal. Just two days after his sentencing, John Francis Tyrrell, a former Christian Brother convicted of 10 charges of sexual assault against minors, was acquitted on appeal, and is now a free man. Former Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson, who was convicted for concealing child sexual abuse, was also acquitted of all charges on appeal last December.

If Pell loses the appeal, the hypocrisy of his life will totally discredit not only him but the whole Catholic Church. Victims will be consoled, and the church may be able to go through a renaissance, throwing away many conservative ideas that have been tainted with lies.  He will have to serve his sentence and will most likely sink into deep depression. Pell will have not only destroyed himself but the church he sought so much to protect.

If Pell wins, it may be extremely difficult to prosecute other members of the clergy. The public prosecutor would be very reluctant to trial a case without much more evidence to support a case, which is extremely difficult in offenses that happened in the past. The church may choose to portray Pell in the metaphor of Jesus Christ, who was persecuted, suffered and overcame adversity.

That would consolidate the institution’s conservatism while the victims and others would feel betrayed, cheated, and angry with the justice system. The church would continue to lose followers and in the medium term become irrelevant in Western society.

Sending the case back for retrial would prolong the trauma for another year. The same questions would remain unanswered. A retrial would bring more discussion about reforming criminal procedures in court.

The church brought this crisis upon itself by doing so very little about child abuse for so many years. The recent Vatican meeting on the subject is too little, too late. The silence from the Vatican appears to be in the hope of a successful appeal outcome, where it can reframe the narrative. The devastation from a dismissal would force the church to change to remain relevant.  Whether it could do so is a big question.