Supporters of abuse victims are seen outside the Supreme Court of Victoria (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

No one on the cold, packed Melbourne sidewalk outside the Supreme Court expected today to go down the way it did.

Before the verdict, members of the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN), a group for both abuse and institutional survivors, railed against George Pell. They called him an elite, too big to fall, while holding placards calling for “JUSTICE FOR WITNESS J” (Pell’s surviving accuser). Before the news dropped, journos swapped stories of legal sources both shocked at the former Vatican treasurer’s initial conviction for child sex abuse and confident that “reasonable doubt” would see judges overturn the jury.

On the street police are perhaps unsurprisingly brusque. One tells me he shouldn’t ask me twice to clear a path (it’s the first time he’s spoken to me). The queue into the court is enormous and filled with slightly peeved lawyers running late for other cases . Further away, cops can also be seen swapping maps of some kind, presumably working out a game plan for crowds and, possibly, the former archbishop himself, who is later brought in through a secret back entrance.

Cameras glare and teleprompters face directly at the crowd, pre-filled with sentences like “George Pell has XXXX (sic) in his appeal of child sex abuse”. You can’t take a step without hearing a television live cross about “D-day” or “red-letter day” for Australia’s former highest ranking clergy official.

Crikey spies both Lucie Morris-Marr — who has doggedly covered the case — and David Marr, who wrote easily the definitive account of the first conviction.

During one low point in the scrum, I spy one journalist trying to wedge himself closer to a source. Behind him, a helpful colleague shoves him forwards and down to help get through the sea of legs.

At any rate, with everyone either too late or too “TV journalist” — i.e. encumbered by camera gear — to make it into the courtroom itself, things are tense, busy and frustrating prior to the 9.30am verdict. After all, whatever happens today may well be subject to a High Court challenge. Is it really the end of the matter?

While the news breaks slowly over my lagging smartphone, I’m informally told of the verdict by the CLAN survivors’ cheers. Pell’s appeal has failed. His return to the Melbourne Assessment Prison is, for survivors at least, a wonderful day that “upholds hope”, as CLAN’s Robert House described it. One activist dedicates the shared victory to, among others, survivors who have died by suicide.

They handle the immediate scrum of interviews with grace, repeating answers, lauding the bravery of a survivor who went with a complex truth in lieu of a “more believable story”, and explaining that, even with the High Court challenge, Pell will have to spend another six months in jail.

Tension finds an outlet — an older woman from CLAN is harassed by a Pell supporter, who shouts about assumptions about priests. They shout that the survivor’s pain has nothing to do with Pell, and that the abuse Pell has been convicted of could not have been possible. 

Finally, after lawyers shuffle out, prominent survivor and advocate Chrissie Foster exits the court. She leaves everyone with what’s become something of her battle-cry: that the Catholic Church cannot continue with a compensation scheme set up by a man who, as of today, has been found by both judge and jury to have committed child sex abuse.

Whatever happens at the High Court, justice for victims now rests with that religious giant.

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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey