If you didn’t turn on a radio or a television or a device last week, and avoided all of the newspapers, you might have missed news reports which suggested that the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) had given a “green light” to Victoria Police to charge Cardinal George Pell with historic offences.
I wasn’t sure whether to address this latest news because, apart from this very vague report, we don’t really have any information and I didn’t want to add to the speculation. But I get the sense that many people are confused about the importance of this development, and so I wanted to provide some thoughts.
The news that the OPP had advised Victoria Police that they could charge Cardinal Pell became known after, late on Tuesday night, the Daily Telegraph and its sister publications in other Australian states published a story online, reporting that: “… the Victorian police force has received key advice from John Champion SC regarding a brief of evidence … It is understood that Victoria’s DPP has advised police that based on its assessment of the evidence they can charge the Cardinal.”
The story went on to say that the OPP had sent the advice to Victoria Police earlier that day. A story in The Australian reported that the development surprised the Cardinal’s lawyers.
Among the things this report confirms is that there is indeed a leak, either in the OPP or Victorian Police.
When allegations against the Cardinal appeared on the 7.30 Report last year, the reporter Louise Milligan – who conveniently released a book about the allegations against the Cardinal on Monday of last week, the day before the advice was given from the OPP to Victoria Police – insisted that the information had not been leaked to the ABC. Her “no leak” claim was backed up by Victoria Police’s Chief Commissioner, Graham Ashton.
It is surprising, but not impossible, that Ms Milligan was able to uncover allegations against Cardinal Pell herself at around the same time that Victoria Police was investigating. The “no leak” story was at least plausible.
Within hours of the advice being sent from the OPP to Victoria Police, the media was made aware of its contents. This time, there were no claimants with that information who could go and seek out a reporter. There is no independent source, not covered by obligations of confidentiality, who was permitted to share that information.
Somewhere within the OPP or Victoria Police, there is a leak.
Whether or not the contents of the advice or, at least the timing of its delivery, was provided to Ms Milligan is not certain. She told Network Ten’s The Project that she had no insight to what the OPP was doing. Again, it is plausible that she is telling the truth; that the publication date of her book, the associated media interviews, and her subsequent gloating that bookshops were running out of copies of her book two days after the news broke was all a happy coincidence. I’d be surprised, but it is possible.
The leaking and the book aside, the next question becomes “what happens now?”
Victoria Police have indicated that they will likely make a decision in the next few weeks about whether or not to pursue charges against Cardinal Pell. If they do, then the case proceeds in the same way that other criminal proceedings do. I know there are discussions about whether or not the Cardinal is well enough to return to Australia, and about extradition and the like, but I’m not going to engage in speculation about a hypothetical situation, because it is not helpful.
I will say one more thing about a potential criminal trial, though.
People often think that the aim of a criminal trial is to achieve a conviction. That’s not really true. The aim of any criminal trial should be to arrive at the truth. But leaving my lawyer’s idealism aside for the moment, I can accept that the goal of police and prosecutors who lay charges against a person is generally to achieve a conviction. One of the principles that governs all legal practice – civil and criminal – is that you do not initiate a case where you do not have a good faith belief that you will succeed because it is a waste of the court’s time and of your client’s money.
But I am not sure that this is the same for the case involving Cardinal Pell.
While there are a good number of people who want to see him jailed, either for crimes committed by himself, cover ups of the crimes of others, or just because they don’t like him, I also think that for many, the laying of charges is the desired end. If Cardinal Pell is charged, it is likely he could not continue in his current role unless and until his name is cleared, a process which could take years. He’s just about to turn 76, and so a return to ministry after this occurs would be difficult. There are people who would be very happy with this outcome, so much so that the final determination would be irrelevant.
This is why the next steps made by Victoria Police are crucial. They have to be honest with themselves about the end they are seeking. I hope and pray that their desired goal is the pursuit of truth, and the upholding of justice which is said to be blind to the individual involved. Indeed, that must be what we all want out of this.