Cardinal George Pell (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

In freeing George Pell, the High Court did not change the law. It did not render jury trials meaningless. That is so, whether you agree or disagree with the factual conclusion it reached after imposing its own opinion about the evidence in place of the jury’s in Pell’s trial.

The court did, however, plant a flag firmly in the sand. Its emphatic declaration, made with the full force of seven judge unanimity, was this: the criminal law of Australia makes no special allowances for allegations of historical sexual violence against children. Sexual violence, whenever it happened, however frequently and insidiously and whoever were its victims, will be treated no differently from any other category of crime.

This is the watershed moment for our society. The highest court has confirmed, definitively, the status quo of the law. A person, powerful or not, accused of a sexual crime, is entitled to the identical protections as any criminal defendant. These are the presumption of innocence; the protection of the prosecution’s burden of proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt; and, most critically, the right to silence.