From Lofty Pedestal to Courtroom Dock

Guest Post by Frank Golding
Honorary Research Fellow, Federation University Australia
Vice-President CLAN

On 1st May Melbourne Magistrate Belinda Wallington ruled there is sufficient evidence for Cardinal George Pell to stand trial on some of the allegations (but not all) that he sexually abused children in Victoria. These charges were first laid in mid-2017.

Cardinal Pell will now stand in a courtroom where a judge and jury will decide whether he will spend time in gaol. In fact, the charges will be heard in two separate trials. The Cardinal strenuously denies all the allegations and has formally pleaded ‘Not guilty’.

The world’s media will turn out again, gripped by the spectacle of the third most senior member of the Church’s global hierarchy being cross-examined under the law of this land. But, at time of writing, the court was considering a suppression application from the Crown Prosecutor that, if approved, could mean there will be no public reporting of the trials until it’s all over.

At the committal hearing, Pell’s lawyer, echoing a theme popular among Pell’s supporters, submitted that the complainants might have testified against the powerful Cardinal to punish him for his Church’s failure to act against known abusers in its ranks. Magistrate Wallington was not convinced.

The Cardinal’s guilt or innocence of the formal charges will be dealt with on the merits of the evidence relevant to those charges. That’s as it should be.

But that won’t stop people talking—and not just airing their deep-felt personal opinions on what will play out in the courtroom. Many will also air strong views about the man and what he represents.

Many had looked to Pell for strong action—or at least empathy—when they exposed the crimes committed against them by clergy. They felt let down by his adversarial approach and by his apparent preference to protect the reputation, and assets, of his institution.

Many were repelled by his willingness to blame others when confronted by the evidence of endemic abuse within his Church. They recall his assertion to the Victorian Parliamentary inquiry in 2013 (Betrayal of Trust) that when he was the Auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne he was powerless when Archbishop Little, his predecessor, destroyed records and moved criminal priests from parish to parish to cover up their crimes.

Some survivors find it difficult to separate the Cardinal’s current trial from his performance at the Royal Commission defending the Church’s appalling record in handling clergy abuse. Many found his claims that his colleagues habitually kept him in the dark implausible. They hope—perhaps unrealistically—that after the trial there will be further insights into how the Church could have so blatantly covered up crimes against children. Now Pell has been committed to trial, how does the Care Leaver community view what the future may bring?

It’s clear the trial of George Pell means different things to different people. Some survivors have a deep-seated fear that if he is exonerated, the publicity will all die down and life will go back to what it was in Catholic institutions before the Royal Commission shook things up.

Other survivors remain upbeat, even when accepting that Pell may be exonerated because, after all, there are lamentably low conviction rates in child abuse cases especially when the allegations date back many years. But for them, the trial is justice already. Many had thought this prince of the church was too powerful a figure to be prosecuted.

But if he is found guilty, it does the cause of justice for other victims no harm. Outranking Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide who, this week in Newcastle, was found guilty of concealing child sexual abuse, Cardinal Pell would be the most senior priest to fall off his pedestal, but it would be clear that he wouldn’t be the last.