Damian Thompson

Cardinal Pell returns to Australia ‘to clear his name’. But what are his chances of a fair trial?

Cardinal Pell returns to Australia 'to clear his name'. But what are his chances of a fair trial?
Text settings

Cardinal George Pell, the head of the Vatican's finances, has been charged with historic sex offences in his native Australia. He is returning there 'to clear his name'. 'I look forward to my day in court', he said at a press conference in Rome this morning.

If I were in his shoes, I wouldn't be looking forward to it. I believe – on the basis of the very sketchy evidence we've seen so far, and also my personal encounters with him – that the Cardinal is innocent of these charges. But what are his chances of a fair trial in Australia?

Let me quote at length from an article by Angela Shanahan in The Australian, published on June 11. It seems to be behind a paywall, but this is what she had to say:

Pell can never receive a fair trial. The “vibe” has taken over. The year-long pursuit of him by the police, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton’s recent frequent radio interviews and unprecedented commentary on the process, combined with the sustained efforts of the ABC and Fairfax Media, have ensured that any real evidence of wrongdoing has long become a secondary consideration to the vibe.

That vibe was created by the avalanche of media stories and commentary clouded by sheer speculation going back to the cardinal’s last appearance before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, none of which is relevant to a criminal charge of sexual abuse. John Howard has spoken about the “get Pell” mentality: “It seems as if Cardinal Pell is being singled out to take the rap for the misdeeds of a whole lot of people and the evidence is that he was more active in trying to do something about it.”

I do not need to defend Pell’s right to a presumption of innocence. The most recent voices in defence of Pell’s rights are those of respected members of the legal fraternity anxious about the state of justice. The Justice Institute of Victoria has said the “lack of regard” for the cardinal’s rights was “a startling affront” to the cornerstone of the legal system. Noel Pearson, who is neutral about the cardinal except that he is interested in justice, has condemned the silence of “latter-day Robespierres” who won’t stick their heads above the parapet to defend the presumption of innocence.

One of the most powerful ­voices was Amanda Vanstone’s: “The media frenzy surrounding Cardinal George Pell is the lowest point in civil discourse in my lifetime … no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages. Throwing out principle, treating Pell as guilty from the start won’t right all the wrongs perpetrated on innocent children. It will simply perpetrate other evils … What we are seeing now is far worse than a simple assessment of guilt. The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial. Perhaps the rule of law sounds as if it’s too esoteric to worry about.”

Bear that in mind, and also a commentary by canon lawyer Dr Ed Condon published in the Catholic Herald this morning. He writes:

It is only right to ask: what legitimate purpose of public interest is served by authorities announcing that a globally prominent figure is being charged with an unknown number of unspecified crimes? The results this morning are nothing short of Kafkaesque.

A final observation. There is very widespread scepticism in the Vatican today about these historic sex allegations – even from people in the Curia who dislike George Pell, and God knows there are enough of them, given his determination to root out corruption and defend the traditional teachings of the Church.