George Pell remains, as he was yesterday, a convicted paedophile. The unanimous verdict of his jury — that 20 or so years ago he committed one rape and four indecent acts against two choirboys in St Patrick’s Cathedral — has been upheld by Victoria’s Court of Appeal.
It took Andrew Bolt a few minutes to declare the court’s decision “appalling” and reject it out of hand, as he did with the jury’s verdict in February. No need to read the 300-page judgment or even pause for breath. No need for such inconveniences when you know the truth.
Pell’s appeal had three limbs to it, and they all failed. The big play was his assertion of impossibility: for 13 different forensic reasons, his counsel argued, for Pell to have done the crimes was “physically impossible”. The defence at trial had piled on the circumstantial evidence to argue that Pell just couldn’t have done it even if he’d wanted to.
Although, as the appeal court was careful to point out, Pell had no onus to prove impossibility, he had the problem that the jury had believed his accuser. To overcome a jury verdict, the appeal court has to be convinced that it is unsafe: that it was “unreasonable and cannot be supported having regard to the evidence”.
This is a hard ask. It’s not about whether the appeal judges agree with the verdict, but whether they consider it was open to the jury at all.
In that context, Pell really needed to undermine the crown case to such an extent that the appeal court could decide that nobody could ever have found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The best way to get there was to show that he just could not have committed the crime.
One of the judges, Justice Weinberg, was with Pell on this. He found aspects of the complainant’s evidence unconvincing and implausible, and was persuaded by the impossibility argument. The other two, Chief Justice Ferguson and Justice Maxwell, didn’t buy it. The appeal judges joined the trial judge and jury in being the only people who have seen the testimony of the surviving victim and, having watched his evidence, they said that “he came across as someone who was telling the truth”.
In the end, the majority judges found there was nothing in the case compelling a finding that the jury “must have had a doubt” about the truth of what the victim said. They didn’t find a doubt within themselves, and so there was no basis for deciding that the jury necessarily got it wrong.
Pell’s other two appeal grounds were technical. All three judges were against him on these. One was that the trial judge had erred in refusing to allow Pell’s counsel to show the jury an “animation” of the cathedral, showing how people would have moved through it on a typical Sunday after mass (when the principal crime occurred). The trial judge excluded it because it wasn’t evidence; it was an interpretation of evidence. The appeal court agreed, stating that it could have misled or confused the jury.
The final ground was a very technical alleged irregularity in Pell’s arraignment, which is required by law to take place in the presence of the jury panel. The panel was in a different room at that moment, watching by video link. The appeal court held that “presence” doesn’t require being in the same room.
After the trial verdict was made public, I wrote that those attacking it were undermining the rule of law and behaving with deep hypocrisy. They, through the medium of Pell’s appeal counsel Bret Walker SC — the absolute best representation one could have — have now had their objection heard. It was singular: that Pell could not have committed these crimes. The Court of Appeal’s reply: no, you’re wrong, it was entirely possible and, in fact, we can see why the jury reached the verdict it did.
Put aside anyone’s personal reverence for Pell the cardinal, or the church for which he has been a steadfast warrior; ignore their consequently blinkered conviction that he must be innocent at all costs. Look at the facts.
These include, apart from the evidence in Pell’s own case, the objective truth of child sexual abuse. It happens in the dark. Its perpetrators are men of power, wielding that power, frequently within institutional settings. The royal commission exposed that the men who do this evil are men like Pell.
That doesn’t mean that Pell is guilty, of course. It means that the loud protestation that he could not be guilty because of who he is, is as lacking in foundation as the Catholic Church’s continuing claim to moral authority.
Add to that the testimony of his victim, believed by an impartial jury and now further vindicated by the Court of Appeal, and there is nothing left to accept but that the law has spoken with definitive force. Pell’s disgrace is affirmed.
Survivors of abuse can find support by calling Bravehearts at 1800 272 831 or the Blue Knot Foundation at 1300 657 380. The Kids Helpline is 1800 55 1800.