Cardinal George Pell will walk free today after the High Court of Australia granted special leave for him to appeal against his convictions in the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria for child sexual offences, allowed his appeal against those convictions, quashed the convictions and ordered his release from custody.
This time last year, Australia’s highest ranking Catholic Church official was sentenced to 6 years in prison, with a non-parole period of 3 years and 8 months after a jury found him guilty of five counts of sexually abusing two choirboys while he was Catholic archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.
Pell has staunchly maintained his innocence and since being charged on the back of allegations made during the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sex Abuse in 2017, and then subsequently found guilty has explored all avenues for appeal.
Evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard
The High Court was his last option, and, in a unanimous decision from the full bench of judges, the high court found, “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.
Essentially, in layman’s speak, this means that while the jurors found the complainant to be believable, compelling, honest and reliable, this was not enough – other evidence should have called the complainant’s account into question.
The High Court decision focused on the fact that the evidence provided by other ‘opportunity witnesses’ during the trial was inconsistent with the account given by the complainant and therefore, required the jury, “to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents.”
Onus of proof
The way the legal system operates means that the original charges against Pell, were the prosecutions to prove. The original allegations against Pell were made in 2015 by two men. In between the time the complainants went to police, and the trial began, one of the men had died.
Many of the original witnesses called during the original trial in 2018 included former altar servers and senior choir managers, who are now elderly. Former choirboys who gave evidence struggled to remember details about the choir procession and the church layout more than two decades after the fact.
The High Court maintained then, that there were significant gaps – enough to create a ‘reasonable doubt’.
And this is a problem for all cases involving sexual assault where there are no witnesses and emotional trauma can have an affect on memory and recall.
Sexual abuse survivors around Australia are disappointed and frustrated by the decision, believing that the legal system has failed.
But it’s important to point out that in fact, the justice system has worked very effectively in this case, finding there was insufficient evidence to find him guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
It is however, an unfortunate reality that not many people have millions of dollars to hire legal teams comprising Queen’s Counsel, several other barristers and numerous solicitors, challenging the prosecution every step of the way, including having four separate attempts to get the charges dismissed at the Local Court level, making several interlocutory applications, conducting the trial itself, the sentencing hearing, the Supreme Court Appeal and ultimately the High Court appeal, which has many expressing the view that ‘justice’ is something that is reserved for the wealthy.