Monica Doumit: True import of the Pell case

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Cardinal George Pell is pictured in a screen grab during an interview that aired April 14 on Sky News Australia. IMAGE: CNS

High Court decision was vital to more than one person

In light of the quashing of the conviction of Cardinal George Pell by a unanimous decision of the High Court of Australia, I was approached by a certain national broadcaster for an interview. They wanted me to provide some commentary on what the decision meant for Catholics in Australia.

The interview didn’t end up going ahead, but I still had the opportunity to reflect on the question. Without wanting to be rude, the conclusion I came to is that the final ruling of the High Court wasn’t nearly as significant for Catholics as I had expected.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Cardinal Pell. I am thrilled that the High Court saw what so many others did: that the allegations against him were simply implausible given the ample unchallenged evidence in his favour, that the judges wrote a decisive, joint decision that confirmed that a jury – acting rationally – ought to have doubted his guilt, and that they ordered his immediate release. And I am grateful he is now free.

“The final ruling…wasn’t nearly as significant for Catholics as I had expected”

But as I reflected on what the decision meant for Catholics in Australia, I don’t think it meant that much at all. Whatever the outcome of the case, the position of Catholics in Australia was always going to remain the same.

The day before the High Court’s ruling, Catholics in Australia were called to love God and neighbour, to preach the Gospel, to be of service to the community, to commit ourselves to the care of survivors of child abuse and the fair and just treatment of the accused and the like.

In other words, the constant call for Catholics is for us to become saints and for the Church to mediate the graces for us to achieve this, and as we watched footage of the Cardinal making his way back home to Sydney the day after his release, the call remained the same.

Cardinal Pell in the grounds of the Good Shepherd Seminary in Sydney after his release from prison.

It reminded me of an Easter week homily where the priest preached: “Christ is risen; get back to work.” The point of the homily was that while we enter fully into the joy of the Easter season, we could not rest for too long because there was still work to be done.

Would this have been different if the High Court had come to a different decision, and the Cardinal had remained in prison?

The answer is no.

The mission might have been more difficult, to be sure. There would have been a sense of grief and confusion, particularly for the many people who were convinced of his innocence. There would have been more opportunities for those who did not believe the Cardinal to be innocent to label the Church as hypocritical and tainted.

The Church’s already diminished voice in the public square would take another blow. But none of this would have changed the task before us, nor our faith in the Risen Christ who promised to never abandon His Church.

This is not to diminish the importance of the High Court ruling, but to put it in context. As Cardinal Pell said in his interview with Andrew Bolt shortly after his release, Christians know that earthly tribunals do not have the final say, and so we are able to hope even in the midst of obvious injustice.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said the cardinal’s High Court trial was also a trial of Australia’s legal system and culture.  PHOTO: CNS, Simon Caldwell

Contrast this with how a decision against the Cardinal would have affected our faith in the justice system. If the highest court in the land was not willing or not capable of remedying the deliberate targeting of Cardinal Pell by members of Victoria Police, his wrongful conviction or the blatantly incorrect decision of the majority of the Victorian Court of Appeal, then we would never be able to trust that we ourselves would never face a similar injustice.

If all but a small and noticeable minority of the media had not seemingly repented from their earlier coverage of the Cardinal’s case and offered fair space to detailing why his acquittal was a just result, then we would never be able to trust that those whose role it is to report the news were very much interested in the truth.

If our political leaders and the community more broadly had not, for the most part, accepted the definitive decision of the High Court as reasonable, then we would have reason to be gravely concerned about the type of society we have become. [That people like Victorian Premier Dan Andrews still refuses to acknowledge, much less accept the decision, is thankfully an anomaly that says more about his bias than the decision itself.]

As Archbishop Fisher said on the day of the acquittal, this was not just a trial of Cardinal Pell, but also of our legal system and culture, and it is for the latter two that the decision bears the most significance, because they had much more to lose from a bad decision than Catholics, the Church or even the Cardinal.

Related articles:

Cardinal Pell and the Victorian criminal justice system
UPDATE: Cardinal Pell set free by High Court