When lawyer Atticus Finch entered the Maycomb County Courtroom in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to defend a client falsely accused of rape, the jury could not see past one thing – the color of the defendant’s skin. The evidence, the argument, and the witnesses were a show. The jury was conditioned and prejudiced against the defendant and would convict regardless of whether an unanswerable defense was mounted. There was a predetermined outcome.
On December 12, 2018, George Cardinal Pell was convicted by a Melbourne jury of child sexual abuse, on the uncorroborated testimony of a sole complainant. The verdict, which was suppressed by Australian courts until February 26, 2019, has reverberated throughout the world, and struck at the heart of the Catholic Church, given the status and profile of Cardinal Pell, the Vatican’s Treasurer, and third most powerful Catholic in the world. On February 27, 2019, Cardinal Pell was remanded into custody and is currently held in solitary confinement, awaiting sentencing on March 13, 2019. The Cardinal has maintained his innocence and has appealed the conviction.
To determine whether there were circumstances that contributed to a predetermined outcome, it is important to consider not only the evidence but also the environment from which it arose.
The jury found, that on December 15 or December 22, 1996 the then newly installed Archbishop Pell, after solemn Sunday Mass had broken protocol, left the recessional procession, walked to the sacristy, finding two choirboys swigging communion wine. He then, whilst fully vested in Archbishop regalia, spontaneously and brazenly raped and molested the boys. All in a fully packed Cathedral, with the sacristy door open, in the 10 minutes following Sunday Mass. The prosecution’s case was based solely on the testimony of one complainant, now aged 35. The complainant made reference to a second boy (now deceased), who previously denied the abuse ever took place.
Many commentators in Australia, from former Prime Ministers, journalists, academics and high profile members of the legal fraternity, have expressed significant concerns about the conduct of the trial, including the vitriolic and coordinated campaign of the Australian media and Victorian Police colluding together, in the build-up to the charges and trial. These commentators have remarked that Cardinal Pell has been offered as a scapegoat for the sins of the Church, where years of vicious media reports and Police leaks have culminated in a show trial, where the jury and justice was replaced by a mob and prejudice.
Pell as Public Enemy No. 1
Since the 1990s, Cardinal Pell carried the mantle as Australia’s leading conservative commentator on matters of faith and morals. He affirmed Church teaching on homosexuality and denied Holy Communion to rainbow flag carrying homosexuals whilst Archbishop of Melbourne. He was unashamedly pro-life, opposing abortion, IVF and contraception. Cardinal Pell challenged secular and postmodern society, staunchly defending Church teaching.
As Vatican Treasurer, Cardinal Pell audited Vatican finances, cleaned out corruption and ensured regular accounting of Vatican money. At the Synod on the Family, Cardinal Pell rejected moves to change Church teaching on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Could Cardinal Pell’s status as a conservative warrior have contributed to a predetermined outcome?
In Australia, Cardinal Pell soon became a target of the media, who would circle him, working in tandem with his political and ecclesiastical enemies. The media started to paint a picture of Pell as someone who covered up sexual abuse, moved pedophile priests around, and was guilty of cover-ups and lies. Australia’s public broadcaster described Pell as someone with a “sociopathic lack of empathy”, with respect to victims of clergy abuse. There was a relentless media campaign calculated to destroy his reputation and standing in Australian society for years.
Could such a sustained media campaign have contributed to a predetermined outcome?
Cardinal Pell’s historical record was rarely told. Within weeks of becoming Archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell became the first prelate in the Western world to develop a compensation system for victims of child abuse. In 1996, more than five years before the Boston Globe broke the story of clerical sexual abuse in the United States, Pell’s “Melbourne Response” provided a way for victims to access redress without a court process.
Could the deliberate misrepresentation of Cardinal Pell’s record in this area have contributed to a predetermined outcome?
The “Get Pell” Operation
In 2013, Victorian Police started an intel probe, called “Operation Tethering” into Cardinal Pell. The probe started as an operation looking for a crime by Cardinal Pell when no crimes had been reported. This was at a time when he was Archbishop of Sydney and on the cusp of a promotion to Rome as the Vatican’s Treasurer. There were no complaints, no alleged victims had come forward and there was no reason to suspect a crime had been committed.
Operation Tethering, was a specialized investigatory unit within Victoria Police with a sole objective – “Get Pell”. Victorian Police, at the taxpayers’ expense, were given free license to go on a fishing expedition, taking out advertisements looking at abuse in the Cathedral when none was reported, grasping at straws, at theories, hoping to find something that could stick.
It took 12 months before this “Get Pell” Operation identified a first complainant (whose testimony was later deemed so improbable that a Court rejected the charges at first instance). Operation Tethering worked for years, identifying numerous charges against Pell, spanning decades, from the 1970s to 1990s. The Police adopted a strategic, scattergun approach – numerous complaints from multiple complainants. Surely, something had to stick. They were all dismissed, except one.
In 2016, and 3 years into the intel probe, Victoria Police recommended filing charges against Cardinal Pell to the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP). The OPP returned the file to Victoria Police and recommended against filing charges. Following this refusal, there was a leak to the media, resulting in hour-long documentaries, aired by the public broadcaster, about alleged offending by Pell. Millions of Australians watched or knew about this. National headlines were made and bookshelves started filling with new titles declaring the Fall of Cardinal Pell.
Could the targeted, taxpayer-funded public lynching of Cardinal Pell, have contributed to a predetermined outcome?
Former Australian Senator Amanda Vanstone wrote,
“What we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages…The public arena is being used to trash a reputation and probably prevent a fair trial… because a baying crowd thinks they can be the arbiter of guilt and innocence.”
It emerged, without a doubt that Operation Tethering was no intel probe, it was a “Get Pell” Operation. The resources and machinery of the state were being deployed to destroy Public Enemy No. 1 – Cardinal George Pell.
The years long, relentless trial by media, had convicted Pell in the Court of public opinion. There was mounting pressure on the OPP to recommend pressing charges, and when Victoria Police submitted a renewed brief of evidence, the OPP once again returned the brief, this time, without a recommendation.
Victoria Police then proceeded to act unilaterally, and filed charges against the Cardinal.
A Kangaroo Court?
Cardinal Pell was convicted on the uncorroborated testimony of a sole complainant – despite a defense that not only demonstrated reasonable doubt, but showed the complainant’s testimony was impossible. Over 40 witnesses, including sacristans, altar servers, organists, choirboys, all adduced exculpatory evidence of Pell. All would have been milling around the busy open door sacristy at the time, alongside dozens of parishioners.
The complainant alleged he was drinking red wine in the sacristy – but only white wine was stocked by the Cathedral at that time, and kept under lock and key in a different room. The complainant claimed Pell parted his robes during the oral penetration – but Pell was fully vested for Mass, wearing an alb with two slits to access pockets and a tightly worn cincture, with a heavy chasuble with no slits or openings. Both garments could not have been unbuttoned or unzipped. Pell simply could not have parted his robes.
The complainant claimed another boy was also abused – that boy, now deceased, denied the abuse ever occurred, when asked by his mother.
Cardinal Pell was convicted on the uncorroborated testimony of a sole complainant, whose version of events was shown to be demonstrably false, by the defense. There was no corroboration or witnesses in that busy Cathedral. The complaint was met by strenuous denial by Cardinal Pell, and a mountain of evidence that not only showed reasonable doubt, but also proved the Cardinal’s innocence.
Was this a show trial, with a predetermined outcome?
While Atticus had used every tool available to free his client, in the “secret courts of men’s hearts”, Atticus had no case.
Has Melbourne become Maycomb?
Only the Court of Appeal, Pell’s last avenue in the justice system, can tell.