Melanie McDonagh

Why I find the George Pell verdict hard to believe

Why I find the George Pell verdict hard to believe
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Sorry. I just don’t believe it. The conviction of George Pell – still Cardinal Pell – last December, on which reporting restrictions are lifted today, isn’t credible; he’s appealing against it. Fiat Justitia and all that, but the problem with the rerun of this bizarre trial on five counts of child abuse in 1996 is that the implausibilities of the case against the Cardinal are as great as ever – in his first trial, the Catholic News Agency reported the jury was divided 10-2 in Pell’s favour. Here is what Pell was accused of:

The complainant said that he and another choir boy left the liturgical procession at the end of one Sunday Mass and went fossicking in the off-limits sacristy where they started swilling altar wine. The archbishop arrived unaccompanied, castigated them, and then, while fully robed in his copious liturgical vestments, proceeded to commit three vile sexual acts including oral penetration of the complainant. The complainant said that the sacristy door was wide open and altar servers were passing along the corridor. The complainant said that he and the other boy then returned to choir practice. The choir was making a Christmas recording at that time.”

Now I am a Catholic and I do realise that not many people nowadays are familiar with this scenario, but the idea that a celebrant at mass could actually nip off from the procession from the altar after mass, make for the sacristy (sort of the changing room), remove his vestments – an alb, under a chasuble – at speed and assault two choirboys in this fashion – with the door open and in full view of anyone who happened to pass by – is weird to the point of improbability. (See here for a more detailed account of the practical difficulties.) That he would have departed from the usual custom of meeting parishioners at the cathedral after mass and sloped off unaccompanied by an assistant, is to put it mildly, unusual. I suppose it’s possible that two choirboys who were about to participate in a Christmas recording might disappear at this inconvenient time to drink communion wine but the notion that Pell, then a new archbishop, would have committed an offence of this nature in these circumstances is just freakish. Had the complainant said that he’d smacked them round the head when he found them misbehaving, I could buy that quite easily given Pell’s irascible reputation, but oral sex? In these circumstances? Really?

Add to that the fact that one complainant has died – tragically, he died of an overdose in 2014 – so could not reiterate that he had told his mother that he had never been sexually abused, and you have an outcome that appears to me to stretch the concept of justice.

But if the implausibilities in the prosecution case have not changed, what has is the force of the assumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. In cases of child abuse that is no longer a given. After the royal commission into child abuse and the Victoria state’s own parliamentary inquiry, the shared assumption in Australia – and here – seems to be that anyone who alleges abuse must be believed, unless, perhaps, the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Indeed we have this on good authority. In his parliamentary apology to victims of child sex abuse (two weeks before the rerun of the Pell trial), the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison said: “not just as a father but as prime minister, I am angry too at the calculating destruction of lives…including those who have abused the shield of faith and religion to hide their crimes…They stand condemned…On behalf of the Australian people...I simply say, I believe you, we believe you, your country believes you”.

What? Every single time? No matter what the strength of evidence?

Obviously, there have been countless cases of clerical child abuse in Australia that are proven, egregious, shameful and deserving of the kind of abuse that came Cardinal Pell’s way today. But because many victims weren’t believed in the past, because many clerical abusers got away with criminal offences, it isn’t to say that everyone who alleges abuse must be believed, any more than the fact that every woman who alleges rape should be believed, simply because many women have been badly served by the criminal justice system.

It's bad timing for Cardinal Pell, since the coverage of his case comes shortly after the conclusion of the Vatican summit on child abuse, which included testimonies from victims of the most harrowing kind. He may well be humiliated and disciplined before his case comes to appeal, just to show that the Vatican is no respecter of rank any more when it comes to these cases. Will he lose his cardinal’s hat? Be laicised? It’s quite possible he’ll be thrown to the mob.

I am usually a fervent admirer of the jury system, but this wretched case shows its limits, where the public atmosphere is febrile to the point of hysteria and the allegations involve a celebrated public figure. Victoria is one of the few Australian states not to have the option of judge-only trials. That, at least, should change.

Written byMelanie McDonagh

Melanie McDonagh is a leaderwriter for the Evening Standard and Spectator contributor. Irish, living in London.

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