The last thing a raging fire burning out of control needs is for a jet of petrol to be sprayed on it.
But Cardinal George Pell’s defence counsel, Robert Richter QC, did exactly that at his client’s sentencing hearing on Wednesday. If Cardinal Pell was guilty, it was of a “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating,” he told the court.
Richter has since apologised for his inexplicably tasteless choice of words, which were seized on by the media to suggest – wrongly – that Pell’s own lawyer was conceding his guilt. But the damage was done.
He might as well have incinerated the cardinal himself. Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic churchman now faces a lonely old age in the unforgiving environs of a maximum security facility, a prospect that fills sections of the Australian public, intoxicated by primitive emotions, with the sort of thrill their ancestors would derive from a public execution.
The Australian public’s bloodlust for Cardinal Pell was on full display at the beginning of the week. Pell emerged slowly from an Australian court on Tuesday convicted of child sex offences and into a scrum. He had been found guilty after two trials, the first of which resulted in a hung jury. His conviction came despite the historicity of the allegations against him, in the absence of any forensic evidence supporting the charges and in the teeth of witnesses who attested to their impossibility.
A further trial for sex offences was abandoned after prosecutors dropped charges against the 77-year-old cardinal.
The mob scenes outside the Victoria court – someone shrieked at the elderly churchman walking with the aid of a cane through the throng, “Rot in hell, Pell” – stirred memories of a different sort for me. I recalled a man charging out of the Old Bailey, jacketless, despite an October chill, who delivered an unscripted speech to the waiting press. In urgent tones, he told how he had been imprisoned for 15 years for a crime he had not committed and didn’t know anything about.
The jacketless man was Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, who had finally been released in 1989 after his conviction for bombing was overturned.
In 1975 he and three others had been found guilty of the horrific Guildford pub bombings, which had killed five people. The trial of the Guildford Four has become a byword for miscarriages of justice in the annals of legal history.
I believe Cardinal Pell’s conviction may well turn out to be similarly unsafe.
The climate in Australia is uncannily like that of 1970s Britain, which was gripped by fear amid a murderous IRA bombing campaign and desperate to put someone in the dock. In the wake of the Guildford bomb the Far Right took to British streets in an orgy of anti-Irish hatred and demands for the return of the death penalty, which were hardly dampened by the trial judge Mr Justice Donaldson’s lamentation that he could no longer impose the supreme penalty on the convicted four.
Similarly, to look at Australian social media traffic about Pell is to peer into the dark heart of contemporary anti-Catholic derangement at its most intense.
Well before the jury delivered its verdict, vast sections of the Australian public took it as read that Pell was guilty and were not shy about describing the sort of punishment they thought he should get.
The Australian mainstream media was scarcely less restrained; years before he had even been charged, Pell was a hate figure in the press. In 2016 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship 60 Minutes programme aired a documentary about the cardinal. It featured British anti-abuse activist Peter Saunders, then a member of the Vatican’s advisory commission on sexual abuse, saying that Pell was a sociopath. What viewers weren’t told was that Saunders heads an organisation that holds eccentric beliefs about Satanic Ritual Abuse and so-called recovered memory.
The Australian programme has a track record of hysterical claims. The year before it aired a breathless documentary, entitled “Spies, lords and predators”, into the so-called Westminster VIP paedophile scandal which was then convulsing the news. It promised to expose what it called “the biggest political scandal Britain has ever faced”, which it said involved “a secret network of the highest office holders in the land, past and current members of parliament, cabinet ministers, judges, diplomats, even one of the country’s top spies”. They were accused of “some of the most sadistic child sexual abuse imaginable on hundreds of victims, some as young as eight.”
The secretive network was then being investigated by the Metropolitan Police under “Operation Midland”, a title which like the Guilford Four, has become synonymous with scandal. Just as with Pell, the claims being investigated in Operation Midland were historic, lacked any supporting forensic evidence and should have been treated with caution not credulousness.
In 2016 Operation Midland was closed having cost the police £2.5 million but achieved no charges. An investigation into the handling of the expensive wild goose chase by retired high court judge, Sir Richard Henriques, excoriated the police and made a range of recommendations into the handling of historic allegations. These included asking people who alleged historic sexual abuse why they had not contacted the police at the time and for the police to cease referring to them as “victims” rather than complainants. The report stressed the presumption of innocence for those accused of sexual abuse and the need for investigations to be driven by evidence not emotion.
The Henriques Report should have been required reading for the entire Victoria police force and every juror in Pell’s trials so as to provide a corrective to the tide of hysteria which engulfed Australia.
For as things stand, rational observers cannot have confidence in the safety of Pell’s conviction. The trial of Cardinal George Pell may yet come to be seen as another dark chapter in legal history, a byword for the miscarriage of justice, just like the Guildford Four.