In setting aside the guilty verdict against Cardinal George Pell on sexual-assault charges, Australia’s High Court effectively concluded the criminal-justice aspect of a case that has consumed the nation and the Catholic Church for years. But the April 7 ruling doesn’t really settle anything in the relationship between the church and the Australian state, nor is it likely to resolve the clash between the different “kinds” of Catholicism in Australia and elsewhere. In fact, the decision will probably keep the contentious debates alive, perhaps for a long time to come.
Pell had been charged with assaulting two thirteen-year-old boys in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996. From the beginning, there was nothing normal about the way the proceedings against him unfolded. The first trial ended in a hung jury. In a second trial, he was found guilty by unanimous ruling. Then, in an appeal heard by three judges, two found him guilty while the third, Justice Mark Weinberg, dissented in a lengthy 204-page opinion. Meanwhile, a “suppression order” applying to cases involving sexual abuse resulted in what amounted to secret trials that in countries like the United States would be considered unconstitutional. The proceedings were kept under wraps from the public as they happened, and only a handful of people were permitted to hear testimony. The media was not allowed to report on the details of the trials until the verdicts were publicly announced.
Now Pell has been acquitted. In their unanimous ruling, the seven High Court judges pointed to egregious mistakes in the police investigation, and legal errors in the decisions of previous courts. But that does not mean the cardinal has been found innocent. Australia’s High Court can’t declare guilt or innocence; it issues decisions based only on the rules of evidence, and in the case of Pell, it found insufficient evidence to support the guilty verdict. As Jeremy Gans, a professor at Melbourne Law School, noted: “The High Court’s key ruling—that there is a ‘significant possibility’ that Pell is innocent of the charges against him—isn’t a conclusion that he is innocent; it is a conclusion that the prosecution failed to prove that he isn’t.”
While Pell may yet face further criminal charges and civil lawsuits, the likelihood of this happening is uncertain, given the now diminished standing of those who handled the initial allegations. In fact, the handling of the Pell case has prompted a wider discussion on the criminal-justice system in the state of Victoria. The role of the media in all of this—particularly, reporting and coverage by the publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation—is also under scrutiny. Pell and his supporters are not alone in the opinion that the ABC actively cooperated with the police in attempting to convict Pell in the court of public opinion and thus secure a conviction in the courtroom. Further, an investigative reporter for the ABC attacked Pell in a 2017 book published by the publicly funded Melbourne University Press. Yet at the same time, commentators in some prominent newspapers and hosts on Sky News television were just as vocal in their efforts to see Pell found innocent.