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

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

  1. Stephen Allen says:

    Extraordinary that a single case and no similar other receives such attention nor indeed that which was the subject of a Royal Commission and the findings of said commission. A very dark chapter of Australia is still being written and nought a word.

  2. Graeme Lawler says:

    I don’t think one has to be conducting a culture war (M. Leahy) to question the legal process involved with the conviction of Pell. Attempts by some writers including the editorial of NCR in the USA and a number here in OZ to belittle the first jury result, the testimony of the defence witnesses and the dissenting opinion of Weinberg strikes me as rather odd as though they haven’t read right through the appeal opinions. Even blind freddy can see a great difference in the degree of detailed analysis. Anyone too can have an opinion comparing the similarities been the extracts of the complainant’s story and the Rolling Stone article of abuse published in 2011. Further, prior to December 1996, pell called two meetings of priests and warned them specifically that anyone abusing children would face serious consequences (minutes from these mtgs are held in the archives of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers) – besides the Melbourne Response, it beggars belief that the new archbishop would commit a disgusting crime in the sacristy metres from where people were praying, knowing that the sacristan would be coming in after him. A jury is supposed to be more or less a random sample of the population – is it possible that the jury were all influenced by the negative publicity so patently obvious for at least the last two decades against him that they could not entertain any doubt at all?

  3. Don Sheahan says:

    Like George Pell, I am intensely disliked by quite a few people. I suppose one day one of these will make a sexual claim against me going back to when I offended him or her, and he or she will have to be believed. I guess I will just have to suck it, and accept my suffering in prison. Fair and reasonable punishment.

  4. Jim KABLE says:

    Excellent essay and responses, too.

    So the lad who later died denied to his mother having been abused by Pell. Fairly standard I would have thought.

    I remember aged 11 being asked by mother something of the same order of question to which I immediately (in fact too swiftly) answered by denying such a possibility. The very rapidity of my negative caused my mother – bless her forever – to ask again. This second time – just moments after my first answer – I responded to in the positive – from which everything then flowed.

  5. Anthony Pun says:

    John 8:7, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…….” Pell has been judged by the law of man and found guilty. The man is down and suffered from his deeds and fell from grace in his own church, we should leave him alone to reconcile with his God, In the end, the law of God will come to judge him, and he has to prepared his mind for “internal peace” in his reconciliation with God, which is more important than any physical punishment he would have suffered on this earth.

  6. Kien Choong says:

    As I understand it, no one can be 100% sure of Cardinal Pell’s guilt since no one actually saw the crime committed. The best the jury could do was to judge Cardinal Pell’s guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”.

    Sometimes, the innocent must voluntarily suffer to make the world better. That seems to be a key lesson of Jesus’s death on the cross. Perhaps Cardinal Pell might find the strength to insist on his innocence (if he is in fact innocent), but (like Job) accept his suffering for the sake of all victims of abuse by Catholic priests.

  7. Garry Everett says:

    Thanks Michael. It is interesting to ponder why the victim who died told his mother he was never abused by the Cardinal.
    I have been in a jury where something similar happened and the victim later said “It was easier to say that as no one would have believed me and I would have been in more trouble”
    Things are often not what they seem to be.

  8. John CARMODY says:

    This is an honest essay, especially in its declaration of the author’s past dispositions and loyalties.

    I have found a number of the responses to the appeal outcome, which the Cardinal’s supporters have made, to be seriously problematic. One is the “problem” of a “single witness”. A difficulty for them here is the almost inevitable fact that nearly every case of sexual assault (or “rape” as the term used to be) will necessarily depend on a single witness: it is rare for other persons to be present as witnesses when the alleged crime was committed. To refuse to allow such evidence (specifically, the presence or absence of consent) would have the inevitable result that the conduct of such trials would become impossible. Is that what those partisans REALLY want?

    Then there is the nettlesome problem of what constitutes “reasonable doubt” in the minds of the jury (and the implication — asserted by many who have no knowledge of the crucial witness’s evidence or his cross-examination: remember, the judges cleared the court for that part of the trials — that such doubt MUST have been present in significant amounts) during that crucial second trial. But consider the quantitative aspects. With 12 members of the jury and 5 charges (all verdicts being unanimous) that question was asked, in jurors’ minds 60 times: the the “beyond reasonable doubt” question was answered affirmatively in EVERY case. So, the Pall partisans are on thin ice when — on the putative grounds of his superior experience and knowledge of criminal law — they appear to insist that Justice Weinberg’s view warrants more weight. He is one against 62 in disbelieving the essential witness.

    It remains to be seen whether the Cardinal’s legal team decides to “seek leave to appeal” to the High Court. Contrary to the apparent belief in the Vatican, it is not Dr Pell’s “right” (nor anyone else’s) to appeal; it is simply that he has the right to ask for that leave. Whether it is granted is a different matter entirely. Quite a few people believe that his arguments are, really, rather weak. Time will tell as it often does.

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