MUNGO MACCALLUM. George Pell and the faithful choristers at The Australian.

Apr 20, 2020

Cardinal George Pell (we must resume his proper title now) is out of prison and is seeking asylum with an order of Carmelite nuns in Sydney. But his real protectors are the loyalists who always refused to believe he was guilty, and are now running a fierce campaign for his immediate canonisation.

True, it would be unusual for saints to be proclaimed before their death – unprecedented, even. But there are unprecedented events going on at present, so perhaps it’s worth a go.

Or, if canonisation is too big a stretch, we can always fall back on holy martyrdom, the line taken by the faithful choristers of The Australian, devoting pages each day to explain to its parishioners that their man was the victim of relentless persecution from the police, the Victorian government, the ABC, most of the non-Murdoch media, even many of the gullible public – just about everyone, really.

His Eminence was of course clearly innocent, the target of a monstrous injustice. Except that he wasn’t. The High Court found that he should be acquitted, but there was no suggestion that he was denied fair process – that the system itself had failed. It went just as it is meant to: charge correctly laid, trial held as normal, Judge’s summary impeccable, unanimous jury verdict announced.

Then to the Court of Appeal, where a majority failed to overturn the jury verdict. And so to the High Court, which unanimously agreed that there was a reasonable doubt involved and thus there was a significant possibility of Pell’s innocence – in other words he deserved the benefit of the doubt under the rules and under the overriding principle of the presumption of innocence.

All present and correct – no injustice there, except, perhaps, the obsessive secrecy with which the initial proceedings were cloaked. Tough on Pell, of course – he did nearly 15 months, although hardly in the most onerous conditions. But the system got him out, and so he can be pronounced innocent. He received justice which lesser beings simply cannot afford.

But back in the cloisters of The Australian there was never any doubt, before, during or after. Pell was without fault or sin, he could not have done it simply because – well, because he was George Pell. A prince of the holy Mother Church, third in rank at the Vatican, Australia’s most senor a celebrated Catholic – and all those who doubted were one-eyed bigoted sectarians, totally unlike themselves, impartial observers interested only in the truth..

And not only must he be publicly vindicated – a national apology will only be the first step – he must also be recompensed. Punitive damages are in order, perhaps even on the scale of the donations he received to fund his fantastically expensive legal team. And they maybe needed, with reports of another criminal case in the pipeline and the likelihood of civil litigation from disappointed victims. It is not over yet.

But he will never return to his former prominence; the Pope may well be pleased at his acquittal but asking him back to the fold is another matter altogether. Pell will be tactfully thrust into the shadows as far as possible – which in his case will not be easy.

There will be plenty more fulsome interviews in which to vent his displeasure. Plenty of time to rail about injustice, and gently wreak revenge. An eye for an eye – and forget turning the other cheek.

Mungo MacCallum is a former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.

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