News Analysis

The week’s big story: Australia debates Cardinal Pell’s conviction

Cardinal Pell, the press and the police (Getty)

What happened?

cardinal George Pell’s conviction for child sexual abuse has sparked a national debate in Australia, with speculation mounting over his forthcoming appeal.

His legal team has appealed on three grounds. The most likely to succeed, according to legal commentators, is that Cardinal Pell was convicted on the testimony of a single witness, despite what his lawyer calls “unchallenged exculpatory evidence from more than 20 crown witnesses”.

What the media are saying

David Marr of the Guardian expressed a widespread view: that Cardinal Pell’s moral views had been shown up as hypocrisy. “As an archbishop in Melbourne and a cardinal in Sydney, Pell poured his energies into combating contraception, homosexuality, genetic engineering, divorce, equal marriage and abortion.”

But several Australian commentators, even those with little sympathy for the Church, had reservations about the verdict. The Sydney Morning
Herald’s distinguished crime reporter John Silvester said that the Church had “conspired to protect rapists from justice”. Still, “it is rare to run a case on the word of one witness, let alone gain a conviction”.

That wasn’t Silvester’s only reason for doubt. Pell was accused of a sudden assault in a busy cathedral. That doesn’t fit the normal pattern, of identifying vulnerable individuals and grooming them. Rather, it fits the profile of “a random, opportunistic criminal who usually turns out to be a serial offender. Yet no one has alleged Pell had a history of this type of crime.” Moreover, the level of public “pressure” casts doubt on whether the case “was decided without fear and favour and beyond reasonable doubt”.

Bianca Hall of the Age, a newspaper which has vehemently criticised the cardinal, spoke to “several criminal lawyers” who were “astonished” by the conviction – especially over the prosecution’s description of how Pell carried out abuse while in his episcopal vestments. Hall wrote that one of the alleged victims, who died several years ago, “denied anything had happened to him as a young choirboy when he was asked by his mother”.