By Dr Kevin Donnelly
If ever additional evidence was required of the hostility and antagonism directed against the Catholic Church and Cardinal Pell as one of the Church’s most articulate and persuasive advocates look no further than a number of the responses to the High Court’s decision to free His Eminence from prison.
A unanimous decision
The High Court’s unanimous decision by seven of the nation’s most respected, experienced and eminent legal minds to overturn the Victorian Court of Appeal’s dismissal of Cardinal Pell’s appeal last year could not be more cogent and convincing.
Rather than accepting the 2-1 Victorian Court’s decision the High Court judges conclude “their Honours’ analysis failed to engage with the question of whether there remained a reasonable possibility that the offending had not taken place, such that there ought to have been a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt”.
More specifically, rather than accepting the complainant’s allegation that the Cardinal had committed the offences the High Court found the jury that convicted His Eminence “acting rationally (ought) to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents”.
Such was the jury’s failure to properly weigh all the evidence the seven High Court judges agreed there was “a significant possibility that an innocent man had been convicted” and as a result “ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place”.
Proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’
One of the central tenets of Australian criminal law as argued by the Australian Catholic University’s Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven in The Australian newspaper is that for a conviction to be recorded the offence must be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. As widely believed by many in the legal fraternity and as I wrote last year in The Australian the sad truth is that Cardinal Pell was convicted unfairly and an innocent man was imprisoned for alleged crimes never committed.
Unfortunately, instead of accepting the High Court’s unanimous decision given the prevalence of what the American academic Patrick Sookhdeo describes as Christianophobia many have refused to accept there was a mistrial and that Cardinal Pell deserves to be exonerated.
Clementine Ford, a feminist and one-time columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, provides the most egregious and vile example when twitting she doesn’t care what the High Court decides and that “I hope George Pell has been sufficiently weakened by the prison he deserved to spend the rest of his miserable life in and he now dies slowly and painfully from Covid 19”.
While the comments by Jon Faine, a former presenter on ABC Radio Melbourne, are no-where near as offensive or obnoxious, he also refuses to accept the decision by the highest court in the land. Faine condemns the decision by arguing it “will send shivers through the entire Australian criminal justice system”.
given the prevalence of what the American academic Patrick Sookhdeo describes as Christianophobia many have refused to accept there was a mistrial and that Cardinal Pell deserves to be exonerated
According to Faine the High Court’s argument that it’s essential in relation to criminal cases to prove ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ carries no weight. Faine describes the High Court’s decision as “bizarre” and guilty of giving hope “to anyone who has been convicted by a jury”.
David Marr a long-time critic of Cardinal Pell also questions the validity of the High Court’s decision when suggesting the court’s judgement to free Cardinal Pell is a “mighty triumph” not for the legal process but “for the narrative of prejudice the church has spun all these years since the Melbourne police came for the cardinal in Rome”.
Instead of interpreting the High Court’s decision as a vindication of our legal system where there are checks and balances and those who believe they are wrongly convicted can seek redress Marr argues it reinforces the narrative of “The church being pursued by abuse victims, police and journalists with axes to grind”.
What – and who – the critics ignore
Marr also argues “the court’s decision reinforces scepticism in senior legal circles about prosecution of sex crimes committed a long time ago” and suggests the decision represents a “crushing” blow for the young man who alleged he was sexually assaulted when a choir boy.
Ignored is that the young man concerned, known as witness ‘J’, stated after His Eminence had been freed “I respect the decision of the High Court. I respect the outcome” and “I understand their view that there was not enough evidence to satisfy the court beyond all reasonable doubt that the offending occurred”.
What both Faine and Marr also ignore, as noted by Viv Waller the lawyer representing ‘J’, is that the criminal justice system is obviously working without hinderance or restraint given the unforgivable high number of priests and clergy convicted by the courts for sexual offences.
Critics still uncomfortable with justice
Writing on The Conversation website two legal academics, Ben Matthews and Mark Thomas also argue the High Court’s decision “may undermine the confidence in the legal system, especially in child sexual prosecutions”.
Instead of accepting the fact that the High Court is the final court of appeal and that it has the right to judge decisions reached in lower courts the two academics describe its judgement as “extraordinary” and “strange justice indeed”.
Even worse, instead of Cardinal Pell being exonerated the academics expect further attacks when suggesting “Pell has won today on a legal technicality, but he will continue to be assailed by multiple lawsuits”.
Many of those now so vocal in their condemnation of the High Court last year eagerly celebrated our legal system when it produced a result more suited to their anti-Christian, ideological convictions
In an attempt to undermine the validity of the High Court’s decision to free Cardinal Pell the two legal academics go on to argue “In contrast, the complainant has been believed by a jury, by a majority judgement and by a substantial body of public opinion”.
The reactions to the decision to overturn Cardinal Pell’s convictions, in addition to illustrating hostility to the Catholic Church, can only be described as hypocritical and biased.
Many of those now so vocal in their condemnation of the High Court last year eagerly celebrated our legal system when it produced a result more suited to their anti-Christian, ideological convictions.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of ‘A Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide’ available at kevindonnelly.com.au