MICHAEL LEAHY. The Catholic Weekly: seeking justice for Pell or waging a culture war?

Sep 6, 2019

As a former colleague in the seminary and priesthood, and friend, of Cardinal Pell, it gives me no pleasure to see him fall so dramatically from grace. Along with all Australians of good will, I want to see him get justice from our legal system.

However, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse taught our nation and the world that, tragically, status and standing in the church and other institutions were no guarantee of innocence of crimes such as those of which the Cardinal has been convicted. The stories of victims, often uncorroborated, have had such a ring of truth that the legal authorities in this nation have now found in many of them a basis for charges that have led to convictions. Justice to the victims now warns against the kind of dismissal that their stories have met in the past.

Inevitably, the conviction of such a prominent figure as Cardinal Pell was going to divide the nation and the church, both national and international, on the question of whether he received justice from our legal system. In any just community, debate of such questions is legitimate and indeed necessary for the healthy administration of justice, provided such debate is aimed at reasoned discussion of the evidence in the relevant case rather than tendentious promotion of a partisan view of that evidence.

Antony Fisher OP, the Archbishop Sydney, in a recent article in The Catholic Weekly, called for ‘civility’ in the debate on the Pell matter. It is somewhat dismaying however to find in the same issue an especially tendentious appraisal of the matter by American lawyer Gerard Bradley.

Bradley reports that the second of Pell’s alleged victims died having denied to his mother that Pell had abused him. Bradley takes this denial as putting paid to this allegation, and counts the court’s failure to regard it as such as an error. That error, he argues, was compounded by another one:

‘It has long been apparent, too, that the allegations against Cardinal Pell were so inherently improbable as to be, on their face, almost fantastic. Nonetheless, the prosecutors pressed on. They finally got a jury to return the verdict they wanted’

Bradley fails to detail which allegations were ‘inherently improbable’ or to show why they should be regarded as ‘fantastic’, but he is quite clear in his conviction that the prosecutors were driven on not by the force of any evidence in the case but by their desire for a particular verdict. Even if this claim were true, to escape the charge of tendentiousness it would need support from the evidence – Bradley offers none!

Bradley’s assessment of the judgments of the three appeal judges is undisguised in its partisanship. For agreeing with the convicting jury’s assessment of the evidence (which Bradley knows only from the fragments included in the judgments themselves), Judges Ferguson and Maxwell are found wanting in two respects: ‘Their common sense is obviously poor and their practical judgment, worse’. Surely any fair appraisal these judges’ performance here would require some account of why their ‘common sense’ was ‘poor’ and ‘their practical judgment worse’. Alas no such account is forthcoming.

In his praise of the third appeal judge’s performance, however, Bradley is quite fulsome: ‘Justice Weinberg’s opinion is masterful and cogent. It supplies (though he did not expressly say it) overwhelming proof that George Pell is an innocent man’. Here at least Bradley does provide some reasoned support for his extravagant claims. Unlike the other two appellate judges, Weinberg holds that the story of the victim, even if compelling, is not a sufficient basis for convicting Pell. This third judge requires, rightly according to Bradley, that ‘all of the evidence’ be considered, and that such consideration entails a sequence of reasoning different from that of the other two judges: ‘The critical evaluation incumbent on jurors is not the majority’s sequence — if looking only at the complainant’s testimony, it seems true, then all the evidence exonerating the Cardinal must be false — but rather Justice Weinberg’s dialectic (if you will), where the juror tacks back and forth across the evidence, using this bit to test the veracity of that, and that bit to evaluate the truthfulness of this’.

This would seem to be an argument for the traditional method of judging sexual abuse claims where the cogency of the alleged victim’s story itself is deemed in law to be an insufficient basis for conviction. In the absence of guilty pleas (and why should perpetrators offer them in these circumstances?) the victim has no chance of being believed, and the prosecution no chance of achieving a conviction. Whatever Bradley’s argument may come down to here, it hardly constitutes ‘overwhelming proof that George Pell is an innocent man’.

The effect of publication of such tendentious articles on the Pell case is not to clarify the question of whether or not he has been justly convicted. Rather it reduces debate about the question to the firing of salvos in a culture war. Not only is a culture war irreconcilable with the Archbishop’s call for ‘civility’ in this debate; its pursuit is divisive of the Catholic community, and corrosive of the general public’s trust in our legal justice system.

Dr. Michael Leahy is a former Melbourne priest, a retired philosopher of education and politics and also a member of Catholics for Renewal.

Bradley’s article was published in The Catholic Weekly, August 28, 2019.

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