Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican, March 2016. Credit: Alexey Gotovskyi/CNA.
A member of the Parliament of Victoria has urged that there be an inquiry into the treatment of Cardinal George Pell by the state’s police and judiciary, months after Australia’s High Court unanimously overturned his conviction for five alleged counts of sexual abuse.
Bernie Finn, a member of the Victorian Legislative Council from the Liberal Party, said June 18 that “the integrity of the justice system in this state is very much on trial.”
“There are major questions that are desperately in need of answers. I would like to see an inquiry that is at arm’s length from Victoria Police, arm’s length from the judiciary and arm’s length from the government.”
Finn asked that Jill Hennessey, Attorney-General of Victoria, launch an investigation into former Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police Graham Ashton and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to discover “how we can avoid trial by media in future, how did the Court of Appeal get it so very wrong and how could an innocent man in this day and age in Victoria be jailed in the way that Cardinal Pell was”.
Cardinal Pell, prefect emeritus of the Secretariat for the Economy, was convicted in 2018 of five counts of child sexual abuse. He was alleged to have sexually assaulted two choir boys while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.
On April 7 the seven justices of the High Court unanimously found that there was “no evidence” to support the accuser’s narrative beyond his own perceived credibility by the jury, and that, “acting rationally on the whole of the evidence,” the jury could not have avoided reasonable doubt about Cardinal Pell’s innocence.
“Plainly they did,” the justices concluded.
“Making full allowance for the advantages enjoyed by the jury,” the High Court said, “there is a significant possibility in relation to [the] charges… that an innocent person has been convicted.”
The process against Cardinal Pell began in 2013, when police in Victoria opened Operation Tethering, an open-ended investigation into possible crimes committed by the cardinal, despite there being no accusations or criminal complaints against him at that time.
The following year, in 2014, senior police officers in Victoria discussed via internal email how developments in the Cardinal Pell investigation could be used to deflect media scrutiny and criticism from an unfolding corruption scandal in the force.
The operation was given a more formal footing the following year and charges were announced in 2017. Cardinal Pell repeatedly denied all the accusations and left Rome for Melbourne insisting that he would clear his name in court.
During pre-trial committal hearings, several of the accusations, related to his time as a priest in the town of Ballarat, were dropped by prosecutors owing to lack of evidence.
In 2018, Cardinal Pell arrived in court to face the first of what was originally meant to be two trials. That trial proceeded to a deadlock under a court-ordered media blackout in the early autumn of 2018. A five week retrial, also subject to blanket reporting restrictions, convicted Cardinal Pell in December of that year, and he was sentenced to six years in prison.
The second trial collapsed before it could begin when, in January last year, prosecutors conceded they did not have enough evidence to proceed to trial.
Cardinal Pell’s initial appeal of the verdict was rejected in 2019 by a court in Victoria before the case went to the High Court which quashed the conviction.
While Cardinal Pell has been, for many, the face of Catholicism in Australia, and was much maligned after an Australian government enquiry revealed decades of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and other institutions, he insisted that his ordeal should have been limited to the allegations against him.
“My trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church.”
“The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes and I did not.”
Finn told the Catholic Weekly, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, that there had been “a massive miscarriage of justice against a good man.”
“You don’t have to be Catholic to be concerned about this,” he added. “If this can happen to Cardinal Pell it can happen to anyone and it clearly reveals a major flaw in Victoria’s so-called justice system.”