Cardinal George Pell at Melbourne's County Court (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

The Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, believes that George Pell is innocent. He also believes that Pell’s victim is telling the truth. His solution for this contradiction is the obvious one: the victim identified the wrong rapist. Not even Pell’s defence lawyers had tried that one on; there weren’t a lot of 190cm archbishops trolling around St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996-7.

It’s laughable, yes, in the same way as is Andrew Bolt’s complete loss of faith in our legal system. As are the campaigns seemingly being waged by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian to convince us that the dissenting judgment of Justice Weinberg in Pell’s appeal is the only one that matters and, of itself, a sufficient basis for the High Court to step in and declare the cardinal a martyr.

We are immersed fully in the Upside Down: where the rule of law is defended by lefties, and the conservatives threaten to burn the entire temple of justice to the ground if their hero is not absolved and reinstated to stain-free eminence.

I’m taken to this conclusion by an article in the conservative chronicle Quadrant, where the author expresses his hope “that the Pope, whatever happens, will keep Pell frocked and as a cardinal”. “Secular justice has gone badly off the rails. The Church should form its own view independently and act accordingly. It wouldn’t be the first time in history that a cleric has been unjustly imprisoned. I believe Saint Peter spent some time there.”

It’s true that Saint Peter was imprisoned by the Romans (and crucified) — although that wasn’t for raping a choir boy. But the point of interest is the rejection of “secular justice”.

This rush to condemn, not the convicted paedophile but the criminal justice system that convicted him, transcends rationality to such a monstrous extent that it clearly reflects something much more significant than George Pell’s personal credibility. Sure, some people may find themselves incapable of believing him guilty, but here we have a large part of the institutional establishment going out on the weirdest limb imaginable (it bears repeating: defending a convicted paedophile) because they cannot abide this single declaration of guilt in a system that produces thousands of them every year.

If you hadn’t noticed already, the Pell reaction demonstrates that Australia is descending into full-blown Trumpishness. It was obvious when Trump was elected that his real accomplishment was to convince so many people to switch off their left brains and vote exclusively with their feelings; mostly, of loss and resentment.

So he has continued, governing by emotional reflex and keeping his followers at a high pitch of irrationality. “Fake news” is only the most obvious manifestation; right now, Trump is attacking his own Federal Reserve and demanding that the G7 re-admit Russia while spewing venom at Denmark for not selling him Greenland. It’s unsurprising that truth has lost its meaning when that sentence is literally true.

Australia is not, of course, ruled by a tyrannical narcissist, but we are marching carefully to his beat. More significantly, we have been observing the identical anti-intellectual, anti-expertise, anti-science trend. Government ministers now routinely attack their own institutions and confidently make statements that defy fact, science and logic. Barnaby Joyce, one of the most counter-rational men in Australian politics, is enjoying more prominence as a backbencher than he ever did as deputy prime minister.

The fact is that no institution in society is secure. This is not just because they have discredited themselves (like our banks and parliaments have achieved through their amoral venality); even the universities, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology are mistrusted. We are seeing a full-scale assault on the establishment, but it’s not being waged by millennials in balaclavas throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. The anarchists are in the building.

In this context, it won’t matter whether Pell gets special leave to run his High Court appeal, or whether that appeal succeeds. If he stays in prison, he will be the Lindy Chamberlain of cardinals to his defenders. If he wins, they will declare his innocence established while ignoring that that result is not possible since the best he can hope for is to be spared a third trial.

Either way, the paper warriors defending Pell have marked their own cards. They have signed out from the police, the prosecutors, the courts, the jury system, the burden of proof and the entire rule of law. In its place is the new primacy of feelings: they feel Pell must not be guilty, therefore he is innocent. All else — most significantly, the fully tested testimony of the victim that they have never seen — gives way before their emotional need.

This is the post-truth world we were warning each other about in 2016. Welcome to the new abnormal.

How can this trend be countered? Write to [email protected] with your thoughts.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey