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The Broader Lesson of the Pell Saga

The Australian legal system that should have protected the cardinal (1941–2023) failed in its duty. Are American courts any less biased?

AUSTRALIA-VATICAN-CRIME-PELL-RELIGION
(CON CHRONIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The late George Cardinal Pell was accustomed to being calumniated long before the abuse allegation that was the crowning calumny of his long life. He was a public figure in Australia, speaking out on cultural and political issues, usually on the side most likely to infuriate the left-wing intelligentsia. I lived in Sydney for years and I can attest that Australia’s ruling elites, and especially its media, are even more narrow-mindedly liberal than their counterparts in the United States. I suspect it’s colonial anxiety. They are so afraid that Australia is seen abroad as culturally backward that they go out of their way to embrace every left-wing fad with extra zeal.

The legal system is supposed to be a backstop against these national neuroses. Even if Australian culture is more bitterly anticlerical than secular America, I thought, surely no priest could be convicted in a court of law and sent to prison on that basis alone. The Pell case shattered that complacent assurance.

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The High Court of Australia’s exoneration of Pell in 2020 was an extraordinary rebuke of the lower courts and underlined just how flimsy was the evidence against him. But the Pell case was considered by three levels of the legal system: the jury trial, the appeals court, and the high court. Two out of three courts failed this basic test of integrity. A less prominent defendant might not have been rescued as Pell was.

The weakness of the evidence is explained in detail in the book The Persecution of George Pell by Keith Windschuttle, published in Australia and available in excerpt online. In summary, the prosecution relied on the testimony of a single accuser whose allegation required the then-archbishop to perform practically impossible feats with multilayered vestments in a sacristy room that would have been bustling with activity after Sunday mass but was, in the accuser’s story, unvisited by anyone for six minutes. An earlier version of the accusation had the incident taking place after choir practice during the week, when the cathedral would not have been so bustling. During their interrogation of Pell, the police let slip that the accuser had changed the time to Sunday. Pell responded, according to the transcript, “After mass? Well, that’s good for me, because it makes it even more fantastically impossible.”

What explains the failure in this case of the legal safeguards that are supposed to prevent defendants from being sent to jail on the uncorroborated word of a single accuser? The answer is not just the general atmosphere of bias. Concrete, specific decisions were made to sacrifice those safeguards in favor of left-wing pieties. 

For example, the jury that convicted Cardinal Pell never saw his accuser face-to-face. His testimony was recorded on video and then shown to the court. It wasn’t even fresh testimony. It was recorded for an earlier trial, which had ended in a deadlocked jury (ten-to-two for acquittal). In order to protect the accuser from the emotional distress of testifying in person, the court robbed the jury of its ability to evaluate his credibility under cross-examination.

The way the accuser first came into contact with the police is also fraught with procedural concerns. His story involved two victims, the other a choirboy friend who was also present at mass that day. That friend died of a heroin overdose after years of addiction and criminality in 2014. His grief-stricken mother asked her son’s friends if her son had ever been “interfered with or touched up,” thinking that might have been what set him on the wrong path and not a parenting failure on her part. She had asked them the same thing a decade earlier when she first learned of her son’s heroin addiction. Back then, the accuser had told her no. After the funeral, he consoled her by telling her that actually, yes, her son had been abused.

It was the dead friend’s mother, not the accuser, who first approached a clerical abuse victims’ group with the story about Pell. At the time, the Victoria Police already had a task force in place specifically intended to find abuse allegations against Pell, even though no criminal acts by the cardinal had yet been reported. It was under encouragement from the mother, the advocacy group, and the “Get Pell” police task force that the accuser made his formal report to police in June 2015.

If the allegation against Pell was a story told to comfort a grieving mother, which took on a life of its own once it got outside the family circle, then it was the job of the legal system to pump the brakes. It did not. This was due to the systematic encroachments on the rights of the accused that Matthew Schmitz described in his blockbuster essay for The American Conservative on the Harvey Weinstein trial. Pell is a far more sympathetic figure than Weinstein, but the problems their cases reveal are the same: Protections for sexual assault accusers are being made at the expense of the rights of their targets, and the legal system is growing more and more willing to forgo traditional safeguards in cases involving politically disfavored defendants.

This should be cause for worry. It is one thing for journalists or politicians to display a double standard on left-wing versus right-wing lawbreaking. It is another for courts to do so. The way the January 6 defendants are being treated compared to equally violent Black Lives Matter protesters, or compared to the protesters against Brett Kavanaugh who descended on the Capitol and physically threatened senators, is a sign of the bias now present in the courts. The consequences of this double standard are not abstract. They are not just matters of social status or public esteem. They can be measured in concrete penalties—in Pell’s case, 406 days in prison.

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