At the verdict George Pell didn’t flinch; he just pursed his lips a little. He was going back to jail
The cardinal’s defenders will cry foul again – but this time it was the judges and not a jury who destroyed their hero
As the time came, even the patter of keyboards died away. It was so quiet in there. The judges arrived looking ready for the occasion. But George Pell has withered in the weeks since his appeal. He was ashen as he entered the box.
Making sense of those weeks has been a game for lawyers, victim advocates and the press: would the judges of the Victorian court of appeal hold a man in prison so long if they planned to release him? Wouldn’t they hurry things along? Were they irrevocably split? Or were they taking the time to write an acquittal that would survive a high court challenge?
The verdict was swiftly delivered. As it sank in, there were little gasps in the room. The silence was so deep heavy breathing could be heard across the court. Pell displayed once more his Olympian detachment. Don’t believe reports that he flinched. His lips pursed a little as he stared at the judges. That’s all.
As Anne Ferguson, the chief justice of Victoria, read her dry summary of the court’s 300-page judgment, the tension in the room dissipated. Hers was an ordinary legal chore. She was getting on with business.
So many big questions turn on the cardinal’s fate. The court’s decision will have repercussions around the world. It’s an extraordinary victory for police and prosecution. But it marks a bitter defeat for those supporters who have indulged in florid conspiracy theories to explain the destruction of their hero.
But none of this was the court’s worry. The three judges had only to decide who was telling the truth in this matter: a young man remembering a brief ordeal in the St Patrick’s Cathedral sacristy 22 years ago, or one of the most powerful figures in the Catholic world denying he had committed such a brazen crime?
Appeals from jury decisions in sex abuse cases can be extraordinarily complex. This wasn’t. All the judges had to do – once they unanimously flicked away a couple of technical arguments about evidence and procedures – was to decide whether the facts stacked up against the cardinal.
They were a third jury. The first jury couldn’t make up its mind. The second convicted. And, after looking at all the evidence again – they watched the videos, toured the cathedral, examined the robes – the judges of the court of appeal by two to one upheld Pell’s conviction.
Juries don’t give reasons. Judges do. The key to their decision was clearly the accuser whose name we can never publish and whose evidence we will only ever read in summary. Ever since his allegations emerged a couple of years ago, those who have met him speak of an extraordinarily convincing young man.
Two of the three judges agreed. They did not doubt his evidence: “[He] was a very compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.” Pell’s failure is set out in hundreds of pages of judicial prose but it’s really as simple as this: most of the judges believed his accuser.
Mark Weinberg SC parted company with them here. Weinberg is regarded as one of the great authorities on criminal law in this country. He’s spoken of as man who ought by right to have sat on the high court. His questioning during the appeal in June was particularly lucid.
Weinberg was not impressed by Pell’s accuser. “His evidence contained discrepancies, displayed inadequacies, and otherwise lacked probative value so as to cause him to have a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt. He could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant said was concocted … ”
But Weinberg didn’t persuade Ferguson or Chris Maxwell to that point of view. One more vote would have saved him. But it wasn’t there. So Pell goes back to prison. He left with good grace, a formal nod to the bench and a slow walk from the room. We won’t be seeing this bulky figure again for a few years.
What now for Pell’s defenders? Do they enrol Ferguson and Maxwell among all the other conspirators, the journalists and police they accuse of being in cahoots to turn Pell into a figure so hated no jury could ever fairly judge him?
Surely not. But some will no doubt try. Around the world they argued the real jury was the first jury, not the one that convicted him but the one that couldn’t make up its mind. Now they have already begun dismissing the majority decision of the court of appeal in favour of Weinberg’s dissent – the real verdict that would have set Pell free.
Their faith in this man is depthless, proof against any evidence that might be brought to bear against him. Many of Pell’s supporters stood outside the court after the verdict looking shellshocked in the sunlight. This was not as they – or indeed so many in the court – imagined things would turn out.
Overhead, helicopters hovered to catch a shot of the cardinal in a van being taken back to the Melbourne city jail. He will soon be shifted to one of those country jails where Victoria houses its paedophiles. He will know so many of the priests and brothers there.
Let’s hope he finds some sort of peace while Rome decides what to do with the most senior man in its ranks ever to be imprisoned for crimes that have stained the reputation of the church around the world.
Australia, meanwhile, can claim a more than modest victory for the law. We don’t often see power take such a tumble in this country. It will take time to sink in.
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