To Pell and Back

So George Pell’s High Court Appeal was successful.

I, for one, am not remotely surprised as I was always uncomfortable with the prosecution case. The evidence of a single witness (however impressive), uncorroborated by others and unsupported by other forensic or even circumstantial evidence, must be on shaky ground when the test of reasonable doubt is applied.

When I heard the (summary of the) summation to the jury I said at the time: ‘They can’t convict him on that. He’ll get off for sure.’

I was wrong. They did convict him, and a bit of a shiver ran across my soul.

Don’t get me wrong – I have an intense dislike for George Pell. Irrespective of what he did, or didn’t do, in the present case, he still presided over some of the worst days of the Catholic Church’s horrific abuse of children and seems to have not just enabled and protected the perpetrators but also terrorised and frustrated the victims when looking for redress.

But it seemed to me, that that’s what he was convicted for. It was as though the jury thought: ‘I can’t say for sure he’s guilty, but he’s been such a scumbag in the past, he must be guilty of something!’

We did hear that there had been evidence in camera – ie, evidence the public didn’t get to hear, so I just hoped that there’d been something in that to dispel reasonable doubt.

Then the focus was all on the defence case at the Court of Criminal Appeal and High Court. They led a huge number of expert witnesses to lend their weight to Pell’s case that he couldn’t have done what he was accused of because he was always so busy straight after a service, there were always so many people about, and even if unseen he wouldn’t have been able to get his elaborate ceremonial kit off in time.

I was also uncomfortable with this line of argument because to my mind that only went so far. Whatever he might have done on a normal occasion was completely irrelevant to what he did actually do on the relevant day.

There were also witnesses who claimed he had an alibi on the actual day – thirty years ago.

I would find it very difficult to believe that someone could identify with requisite precision exactly what they were doing, and when, on a day thirty years ago which was unremarkable (for them) until all hell broke loose. The very fact they claimed to remember would make me suspicious.

It seemed to me at appeal there was just so much of this sort of evidence that it gradually eroded the prosecution case. Apparently, Pell’s accuser was an impressive witness who must have been fairly convincing – something dreadful must have happened to him.

But was it Pell?

We’ll never know.

And that will always be the key conundrum to the criminal justice system. Guilt or innocence has to be established in accordance with evidence, and sometimes there simply isn’t enough.

There will be an outcry, of course.

Pell belongs in hell, according to many, but part of the justice system’s job is to protect unpopular people against the rule of the mob – none of whom know for sure that he’s guilty.

Our system says it is better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent be convicted. So before you scream that Pell’s an evil bastard and deserves gaol anyhow, how would you feel if you’d been wrongly convicted of paedophilia?