UPDATE: Cardinal Pell set free by High Court

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Cardinal Pell speaks at the Vatican in June 2017. Photo: CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters

Legals experts question ABC’s role, call for investigation

Law experts and lawyers are calling for an investigation into the events that brought Cardinal George Pell to the High Court of Australia. Cardinal Pell was acquitted of all charges of historical sexual abuse in an unanimous decision by the High Court handed down on 7 April.

Professor Michael McAuley, president of the St Thomas More Society who has practised as a barrister for more than 35 years, said it was hard to see how the High Court could have come to a different decision “without serious damage to its own reputation”.

‘Serious questions’ to be answered

However, it raises “very serious questions” about the Victorian justice system, the conduct of the police and director of public prosecutions in the matter as well as the role of the media in influencing public opinion, he said.

“The fact of the matter is that all of us have got an interest in the courts operating fairly even with unpopular defenders, and indeed the real test of the justice system is whether unpopular defenders can get justice.”

Sydney lawyer Greg Walsh said that it was “remarkable” that the police decided to prosecute the matter and that many media organisations failed to report on the limitations of the evidence.

Question over professionalism

“The case raises many questions about the professionalism of the Victorian police and serious consideration should be given to establishing a government inquiry into their handling of the matter,” he said.

He also called for the ABC to be investigated for its coverage of the prosecution and appeals considering its legal obligations under its founding Act to be “accurate, impartial and objective”.

“The High Court’s unanimous decision to acquit Cardinal Pell will help in remedying the harm his unjust conviction has caused to the national and international reputation of Australia’s justice system,” he said.

Urgent need for inquiry

“There is now an urgent need to establish inquiries into the Victorian police, the ABC and any other relevant organisation to assess whether they failed to act professionally in investigating and reporting on the allegations against Cardinal Pell.”

His comments mirrored scathing criticism of the conviction, the Victorian Police and the ABC’s role in covering the affair by ACU Vice Chancellor Prof Greg Craven.

In an at-times fiery interview, Prof Craven told the ABC that the Cardinal’s case “had reasonable doubt that was a mile wide”

In an at-times fiery interview, Prof Craven told the ABC that the Cardinal’s case “had reasonable doubt that was a mile wide”

“It shouldn’t have been prosecuted,” he said. “It should not have resulted in a guilty verdict and I think most lawyers thought once it got to the High Court this was the default setting.

“I think the question is why such a case was prosecuted, and what damage it did.” Apart from the ABC itself, the Victorian police “who did everything they could during the investigative process to try and promote a conviction” have “huge questions to answer” he said.

Fundamental principals were at stake, says criminal lawyer

Sydney criminal lawyer Kate Guilfoyle told The Catholic Weekly the High Court had simply upheld two fundamental rules of justice in relation to criminal cases: habeas corpus, which includes that the evidence brought against the accused be applied impartially, no matter who the person is, known as the concept of of ‘blind justice.’

“The second is the presumption of innocence: That is, a person is innocent until proven guilty, and this guilt must be arrived at without doubt,” she said.

“This is said to be the ‘golden thread’ running through the web of the criminal justice system … the person accusing must substantiate the charge by evidence that factually supports the charge.

Impartiality essential

“It is the duty of the prosecution to prove the guilt of an accused, and to discharge the burden of proof with evidence. The trial must be conducted and the finders of fact, (the jury or the judge), must come to their verdict regardless of the identity of the accuser or accused and regardless of political or populist pressures or prejudices.

She said the principles are not just technicalities, “but are of vital importance to the rule of law in our society – of importance to every person in our society in protecting their liberty.

“It is fundamental to the application of justice that respect be paid to these principles by any judicial officer and by any finder of fact. The alternative is a complete corrosion of our system of justice, where any person may be imprisoned or lose their livelihood, on the uncorroborated, or factually improbable, word of another.

The alternative is a complete corrosion of our system of justice

“The High Court decision is one which has underscored the most basic and fundamental thread that permeates the ‘web’ of the criminal law – that of the right of every person to a fair trial,” she said.

Both Dr Walsh and Professor McAuley said Victoria should introduce the possibility of judge alone trials for criminal cases involving high profile and unpopular defendants to prevent similar miscarriages of justice occurring in the future.

Greg Smith, former NSW Attorney General, Crown Prosecutor and Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions for NSW, said that the whole process, in particular the reasoning of the majority in the Victorian Court of Appeal which upheld his December 2018 conviction, was “deficient”.

“It was a very weak case and the Court of Appeal did not have proper regard to the Cardinal’s Counsel’s submissions,” he said. Vice president and chancellor of the Australian Catholic University and lawyer.

Cardinal says a “serious injustice” has now been remedied

Cardinal George Pell says he holds no ill will towards his accuser and has thanked his family, friends and supporters after the unanimous decision of the High Court of Australia to quash his convictions for historical sex abuse offences.

The decision was delivered in Brisbane at 10am on 7 April by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel. It comes almost three years after the cardinal was charged with historical sexual abuse offences.

“I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough,” said the cardinal in a statement.

“However my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church.

“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”

Cardinal Pell appealed to the High Court after the Victorian Court of Appeal last August dismissed his appeal against his December 2018 conviction. The High Court ruled the jury’s verdicts, on four counts of indecent assault and one of sexual penetration of a child, were unsafe.

In a two-page statement, the full seven member bench of the High Court said it had found that “the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place”.

“With respect to each of the applicant’s convictions, there was, consistently…’a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof,” it concluded.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP welcomed the cardinal’s exoneration by the High Court and thanked the judges for their “meticulous review of the facts” and detailed judgement giving their reasons for acquittal.

“I am pleased that the Cardinal will now be released and I ask that the pursuit of him that brought us to this point now cease,” he said in a statement.

The archbishop acknowledged that some people will struggle with the decision. “Cases like these can reopen the wounds of survivors of abuse so that they feel like they are on trial too,” he said.

“But justice for victims is never served by the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of anyone. I hope and pray that the finality of the legal processes will bring some closure and healing to all affected.”

The cardinal was released from Barwon Prison, near Geelong, around midday.

Cardinal Pell, 78, strenuously maintained his innocence throughout, and served more than 12 months – 404 days – of a six-year jail term.

He was charged in 2017 following a lengthy police investigation, which included the unprecedented step for advertising for potential allegations.

The Cardinal returned from Rome where he was the Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, effectively the Vatican’s treasurer charged with reforming the Vatican curia and finances by Pope Francis.

Full statement from Cardinal George Pell

I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice.

This has been remedied today with the High Court’s unanimous decision.

I look forward to reading the Judgment and reasons for the decision in detail.

I hold no ill will toward my accuser, I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel; there is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.

However my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church.

The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.

The only basis for long term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all.

A special thanks for all the prayers and thousands of letters of support.

I want to thank in particular my family for their love and support and what they had to go through; my small team of advisors; those who spoke up for me and suffered as a result; and all my friends and supporters here and overseas.

Also my deepest thanks and gratitude to my entire legal team for their unwavering resolve to see justice prevail, to throw light on manufactured obscurity and to reveal the truth.

Finally, I am aware of the current health crisis. I am praying for all those affected and our medical frontline personnel.

Cardinal George Pell

Related articles:

Archbishop Fisher welcomes cardinal’s release, reaches out to victims
Time and timing crucial to Cardinal Pell appeal
The questions that linger after Cardinal Pell’s appeal