I should begin by saying that I am not a Catholic, and not even a Christian in any practising sense. I have said this before, but it is a necessary opening to this essay. I add to it the fact that I have never spoken to Cardinal Pell nor heard him speak save on television, though I have read a good deal of what he has written. With these caveats in mind I would argue that the sentence on Pell was wrong in terms of natural justice, for the details of the alleged crime were simply improbable in the extreme. They relied on the statements of one of the two boys whom, it was claimed, had given oral sex to Pell in the Sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. The other boy, wait for it, died five years ago, had never claimed to be molested, had made no statements to police, and indeed had never been interviewed. What is said to have happened to him is hearsay.
I’ll add one more prefatory remark. I am used to microphone-wielding reporters pursuing alleged paedophiles, serial rapists and other miscreants, asking them whether they are sorry for their deeds, usually with one or two bystanders looking on. But I have never seen before the visceral hatred expressed by onlookers as Cardinal Pell arrived for his trial. It was simply horrifying. Where did this loathing come from? And that is part of the essay, too.
There have been a number of articles in the newspapers expressing worry about the trial and the sentence. I’ve seen summaries of a couple, and have read one article. Mine is similar, and I ask no pardon. I had my thoughts before I read anyone else’s, and the fact that several people of different persuasions have thought to write in this way tells you something. Cardinal Pell was not on trial for covering up sexual abuse within the Church, or any related matter, but for quite specific allegations about sexual acts he committed, allegedly under duress on his part, on two choirboys at the Cathedral after Mass. But I think he was seen as the personification of his Church, at least in our country, and that affected the nature of the trial.
I am not aware of the details of the robing of a bishop, as he was then, but it seems clear that it would have been difficult in the extreme for someone with those robes to have divested himself of them quickly enough to have two sexual acts in what in no sense is a private place, the Sacristy. The priest who robed him, Monsignor Portelli, told the court that he had been with Bishop Pell throughout the time he was wearing the robes, and then disrobed him. (The jury did not believe him, and there are those who would react, ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he!’) Further, it was, on the given evidence, a chance encounter. Pell did not know the boys, and had not groomed them. I shake my head at all this. This is not the style of the paedophile, forgive the rhyme. The jury, twelve Australians of known character, agreed unanimously that the alleged sexual abuse had taken place. An earlier jury, dismissed because it could not come to the minimum 11-1 verdict, seems to have broken 10-2 in favour of the acquittal of George Pell.
The judge followed the jury’s decision, which was that Pell was guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Pell has lodged an appeal, and that is where we presently sit. Usually, such appeals rest on a technicality of some kind, since appeal judges do not consider the evidence. What that will mean in this case I have no idea.
Now to some other matters. I am reliably informed that there have been whispers about Pell and sexuality for a long time, and while I do not dismiss the remark, because my informant is gay, sensible and most intelligent, I would counter that George Pell’s undoubted intellect goes with a powerful conservatism about what ought to be the correct position with matters of faith and morals within the Roman Catholic Church, and a rather cold and often unattractive demeanour. He can easily appear as someone who completely believes he is right. That has not helped him in terms of public opinion, especially over the past decade or so, when the sexual abuse suffered by boys and girls within the Church system has been explored at length both by a Royal Commission and the media. He has, at least in my view, become associated in the public mind with ‘cover-up’ processes within the Church.
It would be difficult for jurors, no matter how disinterested they might be, not to be aware of all this. Yet they heard the evidence, and none of us did so, nor were we in a position to do so. Given Cardinal Pell’s statements on homosexuality, child abuse, and his own leadership in setting up better systems within the Church, it is simply astonishing that he would have committed such a crime in his own domain. In the twenty-three years that have elapsed since the incident, if it occurred, was he not acutely troubled by the sheer impossibility of the act and the position he holds within the Church? Until very recently, he was third in the hierarchy in the Vatican, the central locus of power with the Roman Catholic Church, and the confidant of three Popes. I do not claim equivalent intellect with George Pell, but if I had been in his position I am sure I would have suffered at some stage a massive nervous breakdown, if nothing more.
Let us agree, for the sake of argument, that he possesses a steely capacity to separate his private life and his public life. The jurors must have come to some such agreement when they were discussing what decision to come to. There are, of course, many examples of people who have led double lives for years without discovery and apparently without remorse. But I shake my head in puzzlement. It just doesn’t have the right feel to it. It doesn’t pass the pub test, at least in my imagined pub.
What about the claimed victim? He was subject to a lot of cross-examination by Pell’s counsel. We haven’t any access to it, and the jury only saw a tape recording. But the claimant’s responses seemed to satisfy the jury. If he made up the whole story, then what caused him to do so? Just as there are people who lead double lives, there are people who make things up, and then come to believe them, embroidering their story to make it more plausible. A couple of months ago more than 40 actresses said that Harvey Weinstein raped, groped or in other ways sexually harassed them. Many said that their careers had suffered because of retaliation on his part. There have been other claimants who are not actresses. The numbers run into scores. I find it hard to believe that all of these claims are factual. Weinstein has denied all claims, saying everything was consensual. I find that hard to believe, too. In today’s social-media climate it is awfully easy for someone who wants a bit of publicity to say ‘He did it to me too’. They have their fifteen seconds of fame. Was that the case with the sexual abuse victim?
So there you are. I simply have no idea what actually happened, if anything ever did. But I have a worrying feeling that George Pell did not get a fair trial. Could he ever have received one? I think not. The personification of justice, the goddess Lustitia, appears with scales and a blindfold. The scales mean that she is weighing up the evidence, the blindfold indicates that she is not able to see who the accuser and the defendant are. I’m not sure she was present at the George Pell trial.