Cardinal George Pell guilty child sexual abuse catholic church
(Image: AAP/David Crosling)

God knows there are few people of less widespread sympathy than Cardinal George Pell, found guilty of child sex abuse late last year.

The man who was once named as an outside bet for Pope has been a hate object for secularists for decades and not without reason. He has waged religious and cultural war in Australia and the world to prevent any deviation from the Catholic church’s arcane and convoluted position on homosexuality, contraception and much more.

He’s happily jumped into standard right-wing myths, such as climate change denialism. He’s done it all as he rose through the Vatican hierarchy, becoming a NSW right-style numbers man for ecclesiastical conservatives. His defence of the church — as the scale of its systematised child abuse, which can only be described as satanic, became clear — was arrogant, high-handed and graceless throughout. One can understand why progressives would be so quick to jump on a guilty verdict, which establishes, in the eyes of the law, that he sexually assaulted two choirboys in the 1990s.

The verdict has prompted an outpouring of triumphalism and scorn, much of which Pell’s equally arrogant and dismissive supporters richly deserve.

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Nevertheless, people who call themselves progressive, secular, radical or the like, should take pause and step back from this sort of raw political barracking. One doesn’t have to relitigate the trial — as commentators like Andrew Bolt are doing, without the burden of actually sitting through the weeks of evidence — to have some wariness about identifying the process of the justice system with the establishment of truth and falsehood.

Pell’s adversaries are now enjoying themselves being able to say, without fear of defamation proceedings, that Pell is a child sexual abuser, a rapist etc, and attaching that to his decades-long resistance to any real contrition by the Catholic church in Australia. But to do so is to put faith in the essentially occult process of justice. The somewhat magical process by which someone is innocent up to the point of the jury’s verdict, and then suddenly and wholly guilty, does not of itself establish what actually happened in this or any other case. It simply establishes what was found to be “beyond reasonable doubt” by the current standards of what constitutes reasonable doubt.

There are more grounds than in many cases to separate what has been legally proven and judged from what is certain as a historical event. Unlike Pell’s right-wing barrackers I’m not going to pretend to be able to judge the evidence based on summarised reports of it. But what is not in dispute is that one of the hitherto alleged, now non-alleged, victims is dead, and that the evidence of the other was the sole account of the crimes for which Pell has been found guilty; that the events occurred twenty years ago; and that one jury could not come to a verdict in a previous trial.

Even if you don’t go into all that tendentious psychologising of the right — would an ambitious man risk his whole career/would he commit such crimes after a solemn service etc etc — it’s reasonable to pay attention to the particular character of the case against Pell.

We’ve decided, in our era, that someone can be tried for alleged events that occurred twenty years ago, and with a single witness, who is also the alleged victim. At an earlier time, the notion that a verdict beyond reasonable doubt could be established from that would have been dismissed out of hand. Which legal regime is right? The answer is that it’s undecidable. The decision to try or not to try someone in such circumstances works off entirely different ideas of priority and right.

To thus conclude that, by finding someone guilty, the system has established the truth is simply absurd. What if the conviction is reversed on appeal? Does Pell become automatically innocent in anything other than a legal sense? Do events now regarded as having occurred, simply be un-occurred?

There’s a real danger for progressives in conceding the idea that an arm of the state — which the court system is — establishes what did and didn’t actually happen. There are quite a few Indigenous and African-Australian adults and children in jail and detention on the evidence of a single cop, or two cops whose evidence sounds suspiciously complementary. The pro-Pell right doesn’t give a damn about them, and its discovery of the rights of the accused is predictably selective.

But just because they don’t have values other than the political doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Pell has been convicted of child sexual assault. That may be overturned on appeal. Neither result will change my opinion that he’s the sort of Catholic focused on worldly power, Church authority, unreasoned reactionary values and lacking, publicly at least, in the values of love and humility presented in the Gospels.

But equally, such an opinion of him does not for me guarantee that he is a child sex abuser, or that I should regard a legal judgement on him, or anyone, as establishing, incontrovertibly, the facts of the matter.