It emerged overnight that the High Court of Australia has quashed the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sex abuse, overturning all the charges against him. Seven judges agreed that the jury at the original trial could not have been sure beyond a reasonable doubt that Pell was guilty.
The High Court’s decision is a sharp contrast to that made by the first appeal court to consider the case. In August last year the Court of Appeal in the state of Victoria upheld the original conviction by a 2-1 margin. This ruling attracted a great deal of comment, not least because of the long, detailed and brilliant dissenting opinion issued by Justice Mark Weinberg, one of Australia’s most distinguished criminal lawyers.
Weinberg’s argument, now vindicated by the High Court, was that the prosecution case at trial rested solely on the testimony of one of the alleged victims, and that both trial jury and his appeal court colleagues had seriously erred, by effectively ignoring a great weight of evidence that the offences could simply not have taken place as described.
The most serious charge was that Pell had sexually assaulted two boys in the sacristy of Melbourne Cathedral shortly after the main Sunday Mass, when he caught them drinking communion wine. The defence at the original trial brought numerous witnesses to testify that this was highly improbable, not only because Pell would have been fully robed at the time, but also because he was rarely alone after Sunday Mass, and indeed often stood greeting worshippers at the main door for some time afterwards.
Several defence witnesses stated that cathedral sacristies tend to be busy places at such times, meaning that Pell would have to be insanely reckless to commit a sexual assault in such a place. The prosecution were unclear about the date of the purported offence, as well as about the time of a second charge that supposedly involved Pell grabbing the complainant during a liturgical procession.
Given the inviolability of the jury room, we will never know for sure why Pell was convicted on such dubious grounds (in a previous trial the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the same evidence). Some commentators have noted that as an outspoken and eloquent conservative Catholic, he has many enemies in Australia. It certainly seems plausible, given current social attitudes, that it is not always straightforward for such men to get fair trials on historic abuse allegations in Western countries. The bizarre and obtuse reasoning by the majority in the first Victorian appeal does not entirely lay this suspicion to bed.