Cardinal Sin and twelve angry men*


A few thoughts about the Cardinal George Pell verdict a few days back:

1. Child sexual abuse is a heinous crime, no ifs and no buts. So is mental and physical abuse of children.

2. A heinous crime can be made even more heinous if it’s committed by a person in a position of responsibility vis-a-vis the child.

3. The height of heinousness is arguably reached when that person in a position of responsibility is a religious figure entrusted with the spiritual care of a child.

4. Child sexual abuse has historically occurred in all religious denominations, as well as in non-religious settings, but it seems to have been more prevalent within the Catholic Church. Perhaps it’s the celibacy of the clergy, perhaps it’s something else, or a most likely a combination of different factors that accounts for this prevalence; that is a debate for another time and another place.

5. By extension, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has also been the most heavily implicated in covering-up this abuse throughout its history. There is a long way to go before the Church ever comes fully to terms with the consequences of all the harm against children it has malevolently or negligently contributed to. The sins of the Fathers should weigh heavily on the conscience of the Church.

6. Only two people know just exactly what happened in the current case – Cardinal Pell and his accuser. If you believe in God, God also knows, but God is not a person and we’re unlikely to see any sign from above pointing one way or another.

7. A jury of twelve people has found Pell guilty of charges. As is usually the case, there will be an appeal.

8. Only the jurors have heard all the evidence against and in defence. All of us commenting on the verdict are engaging in a guesswork – or doubleguesswork.

9. With that caveat, what is at the moment in the public domain regarding the evidence and the proceedings can lead reasonable observers to question how the jurors have managed to reach a verdict of guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”. Remember, this is the criminal law standard of proof – it’s not the civil law standard “on the balance of probabilities” or “shit, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, he probably did”.

10. To question the jury verdict is not to try to subvert the rule of law and tear at the integrity of the criminal justice system. People do mostly get it right – this is why the jury system has been the cornerstone of the common law system as a protection against tyranny of rulers and the powerful – but not necessarily always, otherwise we would not periodically hear of instances of wrongful conviction and people being exonerated, often after years in jail.

11. This happens most often when either the evidence against the accused has been doctored by the police or when the exculpating evidence that was not originally available subsequently comes to light (for example, because it was not scientifically available, like the DNA testing). No one is arguing that this might be the case in the Pell trial. If the jury has reached the wrong verdict here it’s because they convinced themselves they were nevertheless doing the right thing under the circumstances.

12. I suspect that at least some of the jurors might not have necessarily believed that Pell has committed the particular acts of sexual abuse he was charged with but I think they believed that as a senior churchman he was aware of, or should have been aware of, child sexual abuse being perpetrated by other priests within the Church, and either did nothing or actively participated in covering up their crimes. In this instance, Pell was guilty as an accessory after the fact. This might not have been what he was charged with, but this was the only opportunity for the society to hold him accountable for his actions and punish him accordingly.

13. I also suspect that for at least some jurors it was not so much Pell that was on trial but the Catholic Church itself for the crimes of its servants and for the cover ups by its hierarchy. The Catholic Church, of course, cannot be tried in a criminal court; its members can and sometimes are – but often are not, for example if they’re already deceased. In any case, in public mind, too many evil people as well as people who protected them have avoided their day of reckoning and will never face it officially. Pell has been the most senior official of the Catholic Church in Australia – he is the Catholic Church. Even if you do not believe that he himself committed any sexual abuse or covered up the abuse by others, he was the head of the organisation where too many people have done either or both. Somebody has to answer and somebody has to pay for it. To convict him might not be a victory of justice per se, but it could be seen as a day of righteous vengeance on behalf of the countless victims on a symbolic scapegoat that stands in the place of the countless perpetrators and their enablers who never will.

14. I don’t carry any water for Pell; those guilty of child sexual abuse should face the full force of the law, whether they’re men of cloth or not (or, far more rarely, not men at all). As the Romans used to say, let the justice be done though the heavens fall. And in the case of priestly child abuse the heavens have been indeed falling. Failing a judicial miracle, Pell will die in jail. My reflections above are not an effort to exonerate him. As I said, I don’t know if he’s guilty or not – I know that twelve men and women thought so based on what seems to me insufficient evidence. And yet, for all of that, they are most likely right. But it’s not certain. What is certain is that too many throughout history have escaped justice (unless you believe in hell). Whether or not justice was done this week, we know it will never be fully done. That’s the ultimate tragedy of this long and sorry saga.

* and women