On the Acquittal of Cardinal Pell

The High Court of Australia, in a unanimous verdict of a 7-member bench, has acquitted Cardinal George Pell of the charges of child sexual abuse for which he has been serving time in prison: see Pell v The Queen [2020] HCA 12 (7 April 2020). He was immediately released.

Cardinal Pell was, when convicted, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric to have been found to have been personally guilty of child sexual abuse. I wrote previously about his conviction in this piece for the Gospel Coalition Australia website. Subsequently a high profile appeal was argued before the Victorian Court of Appeal and was dismissed by 2-1: see Pell v The Queen [2019] VSCA 186 (21 August 2019). The dissenting judgment in that decision of Weinberg JA outlined a number of problems with the original verdict, and with the reasoning of the majority in the Court of Appeal.

In the lead-up to the appeal even commentators well-versed in the High Court’s criminal jurisprudence found it hard to decide which way the case would go, especially as the court had not even, prior to hearing the full appeal, formally granted “special leave”, a usual preliminary stage.

But in the event the High Court’s unanimous decision, to grant special leave and order an acquittal, is as complete a vindication as the Cardinal could have wished for. It also vindicates the dissenting judgment of Weinberg JA. The court made detailed comments about a number of factual issues, and some minor legal issues (suggesting, for example, at paras [36]-[37] that the Court of Appeal ought not to have spent time viewing the video testimony from the trial in coming to their decision.) But in the end the over-riding theme was that, however persuasive the testimony of the complainant “A” about the two incidents, the unchallenged competing evidence of other witnesses was that there was just no opportunity for these events to have happened on the day in question, and this testimony ought to have led the jury to have a reaonable doubt. See [118]-[119]:

118 It may be accepted that the Court of Appeal majority did not err in holding that A’s evidence of the first incident did not contain discrepancies, or display inadequacies, of such a character as to require the jury to have entertained a doubt as to guilt. The likelihood of two choirboys in their gowns being able to slip away from the procession without detection; of finding altar wine in an unlocked cupboard; and of the applicant being able to manoeuvre his vestments to expose his penis are considerations that may be put to one side. It remains that the evidence of witnesses, whose honesty was not in question, (i) placed the applicant on the steps of the Cathedral for at least ten minutes after Mass on 15 and 22 December 1996; (ii) placed him in the company of Portelli when he returned to the priests’ sacristy to remove his vestments; and (iii) described continuous traffic into and out of the priests’ sacristy for ten to 15 minutes after the altar servers completed their bows to the crucifix.
119 Upon the assumption that the jury assessed A’s evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable, the issue for the Court of Appeal was whether the compounding improbabilities caused by the unchallenged evidence summarised in (i), (ii) and (iii) above nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt. Plainly they did. Making full allowance for the advantages enjoyed by the jury, there is a significant possibility in relation to charges one to four that an innocent person has been convicted.”

Paras [118]-[119]

The same result followed in relation to a fifth charge involving a second and later incident- see para [127]:

The unchallenged evidence of the applicant’s invariable practice of greeting congregants after Sunday solemn Mass, and the unchallenged evidence of the requirement under Catholic church practice that the applicant always be accompanied when in the Cathedral, were inconsistent with acceptance of A’s evidence of the second incident. It was evidence which ought to have caused the jury, acting rationally, to entertain a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt of the offence charged in the second incident. In relation to charge five, again making full allowance for the jury’s advantage, there is a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted

Para [127]

The Court did not find it necessary to say that the complainant’s testimony was unreliable. But in the end, when that testimony was in effect the sole basis for the conviction, and when it was contradicted by evidence from a number of other witnesses saying that there was just no opportunity to commit the crimes as alleged, the court concluded that a rational jury should have had a reasonable doubt about Cardinal Pell’s guilt. And this meant that it had not been proven “beyond a reasonable doubt“, the long-standing standard which any criminal conviction must meet at common law.

There are clearly many things to criticise about the institutional church, and the Roman Catholic church in particular. It may be that there are other things to criticise about Cardinal Pell’s leadership in the church. But this decision makes it clear that, given the competing testimony, the case was not made out beyond reasonable doubt, and hence he should not have been convicted of these particular disgraceful acts of which he was accused.