The High Court of Australia has unanimously overturned the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for alleged acts of child sex abuse that could not possibly have taken place. He has been acquitted and the prosecution cannot appeal.
The 78-year-old cardinal, formerly head of the Vatican’s finances, now emerges in his true colours: as a Christian of heroic fortitude who was the victim of one of the most despicable miscarriages of justice in the history of Australia.
For the past five years, Catholics and countless impartial observers all over the world have watched in horror as Pell was accused by the State of Victoria and then convicted on the basis of evidence riddled with implausibilities and impossibilities.
This week’s High Court’s ruling could not be clearer. It said that the jury that convicted Pell ‘ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant's guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted’ – all relating to one fictitious episode – and ordered that ‘the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place’.
Pell was convicted by a jury in December 2018 on the basis of claims by just one man. It was his second trial: earlier, a first jury could not reach a verdict. That the second jury convicted Pell unanimously is hard to explain.
The cardinal then took his case to Victoria's Court of Appeal. Two judges dismissed the appeal; a third, Justice Mark Weinberg, issued a dissenting statement in which he said he had genuine doubts as to Pall’s guilt and that the jury should have had them too.
The story told by Pell’s anonymous accuser was bizarre. He claimed that in 1996 Cardinal Pell, then Archbishop of Melbourne, assaulted him and a fellow 13-year-old boy in the sacristy of his cathedral. The other boy has since sadly died.
The journalist Jim McDermott, writing in America magazine – a liberal Catholic publication generally unsympathetic to Pell – noted the following implausibilities in an article last February:
The cardinal supposedly opened his vestments to reveal himself to the victims (vestments do not, in fact, open but are rather pulled on and off over one’s head); he rushed back to the sacristy immediately after Sunday Mass, as opposed to the standard practice of staying to greet parishioners, and he did so unaccompanied by the aides who would normally be with him at all times; and the door to the sacristy was open while the children were being assaulted, but despite the busyness of the cathedral after Mass, there were no witnesses to the assault.
To be clear: Pell did not open the unopenable vestments; he did not rush back to the sacristy; there were no witnesses because there was nothing to witness. The accuser was asking the jury to believe that the cardinal, one of the canniest operators in the Church – which is why Pope Francis brought him in to clean up the Vatican finances – would take an utterly insane risk in order to satisfy his supposedly depraved lust.
As I say, the second verdict is baffling. The jury heard no new evidence, merely the testimony and questions from the first trial. Some of this evidence was held behind closed doors.
Now begins the urgent process of establishing how this travesty of justice took place, and to what extent it was engineered by Pell’s enemies, of which there are plenty.
There has always been a strong strain of anti-Catholicism in Victoria, which was traditionally tribally divided between the descendants of Protestant Britons and Catholic Irish. In recent years, many Catholics have, understandably, turned against the Australian Church, which has often responded by parroting the politically fashionable views aired by the ABC network.
Not George Pell, however. As Archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney he refused to tick most of the required boxes. He was a climate change sceptic and qualified supporter of free markets; he was close to former prime minister Tony Abbott, a pugnacious conservative Catholic and fellow Oxford graduate. Pell, in appearance (and sometimes manner) a towering Aussie bruiser, earned a DPhil for a thesis on authority in the early Church.
He is more intellectually gifted than any English bishop and his opinions are less predictable than one might imagine from reading the Pell-hating Australian media. For example, he spoke scathingly about the conditions in which Australia detained asylum seekers.
He is, however, strictly orthodox in his Catholic beliefs and was an influential supporter of Cardinal Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave. He was not in the Bergoglio camp in the 2013 conclave and many were surprised when Pope Francis brought him to Rome to become the Vatican’s first Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, charged with rooting out corruption.
Pell was horrified by the evidence he discovered of Italian cardinals engaging in criminal or semi-criminal activities, and also by the black hole in the Vatican’s finances. The corrupt old guard, meanwhile, were determined to bring him down. So, significantly, were his liberal opponents in the Australian media and the politically correct police force of Victoria.
This brings us back to the absurd charges of child sex abuse against Pell. Was there collusion between Vatican prelates threatened by his proposed reforms and his enemies back home? We do not yet know, but when I put this question to a Roman cardinal last year he replied that it was entirely possible.
The investigation must begin now. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the media report the shameful story of what is, in effect, Australia’s Dreyfus case.