PETER DAY. “Hands-up if you think George is guilty!”

The Australian judicial system will have its work cut-out ensuring the case against Cardinal Pell does not descend into a show trial cum media circus – some feel the horse has already bolted.

I remember watching an interview on the ABC a few years back in which an American professor of journalism spoke about, among other things, the controversy surrounding President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Conscious of the trial by media and soap opera prurience that abounded, he decided to put a test to one of his journalism classes. He asked his students how many thought the President was guilty of sexual impropriety – about half the class raised their hands. He then asked how many thought him innocent – again, about half raised their hands. Finally, he asked, “How many of you actually know?” No hands.

Similarly, it seems just about everyone has an opinion on Cardinal George Pell. There are millions of hands being raised around the nation, mostly hands of condemnation manouevered by a relentless and, often times, brutal media puppeteer that thrives on gossip and speculation. No wonder we have twenty million ‘jurors’ champing at the bit to pass judgment on a man they’ve never met – and on evidence they’ve never seen, or heard, or tested.

“And why do you think this man is guilty, then?”

“Simple; don’t like him!”

The conservative, God-fearing patriarch is, indeed, a much maligned figure in his increasingly progressive, secular, and gender sensitive homeland; a homeland where the seeds of atheism are taking root in accommodating soil, while Christianity – and belief in general -– is being treated like a noxious weed thanks, in no small way, to the terror of sexual abuse.  We’ve entered The Age of Enlightenment mark II with reason and science once again looking to squeeze theology and church out of the marketplace. This cultural shift is reflected in the recent Census which shows a manifold increase in people choosing not to identify with any religion (from barely one percent in1966 to 33% in 2016), while in the same period those identifying as “Christians” has fallen from 88% to 52% -– not a particularly user friendly backdrop for a priest, especially a Catholic one at that. But the pervasive sense of ill will surrounding the Cardinal is certainly not restricted to those outside the church. Indeed, the enmity within is even more acute as Catholics, like politicians, too easily gravitate towards so-called factional corners where their respective Confirmation Biases are nurtured and affirmed: those on the progressive left can’t stand him ‘cause he’s not one of us, while the conservative right love him ‘cause he is one of us.

I am neither an ally, nor an enemy of the Cardinal. Like most of the nation, I have never met him. Nor am I seeking to prosecute or defend him; that’s for those who are privy to the evidence. But does it not behove us all to defend the rule of law and judicial fairness? More than ever the genius of the Westminster system that holds a man to be innocent until proven guilty needs to be heralded from the rooftops, lest the mob takeover the courts. After all, it is utterly irrelevant as to whether one likes or loathes the man in the dock -– his demeanor and personality are not on trial. Further, it is intellectually and morally corrupt to blindly condemn or support someone based on factional loyalties, or personal tastes and biases: facts, please; due process, please; rule of law, please. Once these have tested the evidence, then, and only then, might we raise our hands with any confidence, with any sense of fairness and justice?

Whatever the outcome, there will be no winners. Everyone pays a heavy price: the victims because they are forced to live with the shame of a brutal breach of trust; the innocent because they are forced to live with the shame of being tarred with the same brush; and the guilty because they are forced to live with shame of the damn, unholy mess they created; not to mention society’s enduring hatred of them.

Amidst this winter of discontent, it is vital that intellectual honesty and moral courage are set free to usher in the light of truth.

Peter Day is a Catholic priest from the archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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