In the eyes of the law, cardinal George Pell is not guilty of the sexual abuse of two choir boys in Melbourne in the 1990s. Without significant new evidence, he never will be. But the cardinal is guilty of many other sins.
To those seeking justice for the systematic abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church, he is a symbol of the complicity of the church’s highest officers. To Australia’s conservative culture warriors, he is a key ally who must be defended, no matter how much doing so contradicts their apparent obsession with traditional sexual morality and punitive law-and-order politics.
Pell was the architect of the church’s infamous “Melbourne Response”, which spent millions more on lawyers than it did on compensation to the victims of child sex abuse. He admitted to a royal commission that the complaints laid against his close friend and serial paedophile Gerald Ridsdale were a “sad story”, but “not of much interest to me” at the time they were made. He acted as archbishop of the Sydney and Melbourne dioceses, both hives of child sexual abuse. He never reported fellow priests and consistently tried to minimise the payouts offered to their victims.
Accusations of child sexual abuse have followed him for decades, including two fresh allegations this year revealed in the ABC documentary Revelation. He is an arch-conservative, anti-abortionist and homophobe who campaigned vociferously against marriage equality. He has helped destroy the lives of vulnerable young people who had the misfortune of falling into the “care” of the Catholic Church, through its grand network of schools, homes and churches, often concentrated in the country’s poorest regions.
The sum of these abuses should be enough to condemn anyone to social exile, if not prison. But Pell enjoys the support of some of the most powerful people in Australia. His prison cell opened to the triumphant bleating of his right-wing friends and allies. A conservative columnist for the Australian, Paul Kelly, welcomed the conclusion of “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in Australian history”. Andrew Bolt, who has secured a lucrative and exclusive TV interview with Pell, solemnly told his Sky News listeners that the ABC had “with one voice persecuted him for years”, leading a “crusade to destroy him”. News Corp columnist and devout conservative Miranda Devine wrote, “a good priest, falsely accused and railroaded through a politically motivated investigation and an unfair trial, can walk free, in Holy Week”.
It is odd to hear right-wingers like Devine condemn the “entire Victorian legal system” because it convicted someone of a crime. The right usually demands more convictions, harsher sentences, and tougher bail and parole conditions. But when the system – briefly – convicts one of their own, these right-wing pundits enter public fits of rage against the machine.
In reality, the legal system afforded Pell unusually generous treatment. First, he had access to the finest legal team in Australia. He entered the courtroom supported by Queen’s Counsel, several costly barristers and numerous solicitors. Although it’s doubtful Pell, essentially the Vatican’s treasurer, needed it, the Catholic Church advertised a fund to cover his legal costs and encouraged the faithful to donate.
Second, he could afford to fight his conviction all the way, launching four separate appeals in lower courts before being heard by the High Court. While the left should defend as precious the right to appeal a conviction, it’s a right that comes much more easily to senior figures in major ruling class institutions.
Finally, in a rare outcome, he was able to have the opinion of a jury overturned. The jury system is meant to be the democratic underpinning of Australian jurisprudence. The right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers was won in 17th century Britain by the lower classes and was eventually exported to the colonies. It replaced the Star Chamber system, in which the poor would be judged by their superiors, all members of the medieval king’s council.
Today, the jury may lend popular legitimacy to the legal system, but it is a luxury afforded very few. Most people convicted in criminal cases are allowed only a brief stint in front of a magistrate, not the right to be judged by their peers. It might be harder to send people to prison for crimes of poverty otherwise.
Pell’s original guilty verdict was reached by a panel of jurors who found the key witness testimony, that of Pell’s accuser, credible. The Catholic witnesses called by the defence, who claimed that boys could never be raped in the sacristy because they were busy after mass and archbishops were typically accompanied by other priests, were not enough to cause the jury to doubt to Pell’s guilt. Perhaps they had in mind the countless children molested in Catholic sacristies around the world, despite Catholic customs. The jury’s decision was later overturned by the High Court, essentially another jury, this time comprised of Pell’s class peers.
Pell’s case brought together an obnoxious coterie of right-wing defenders. They populate a section of the media and the political class. Media outlets such as the Australian, Quadrant and Sky News, along with reactionary politicians such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, have waged an unrelenting culture war aimed at dragging Australian politics to the right and strengthening the ideological support for capitalism’s power structures and inequalities. They all repeat the same paranoid fantasy, one which resonates with the far-right globally: that the left has taken over the media, universities, politics and culture, stifles free speech and erases conservative opinion.
For this group of powerful, wealthy reactionaries, Pell was one of their own. Like Abbott in the Liberal Party or Andrew Bolt in the corporate media, Pell was an ideological warrior to take the conservative Catholic Church even further to the right. From his positions of high influence in an enormous global cultural institution, he tried to turn back the tide of sexual liberalism. He was part of a band of well-paid reactionary commentators; as a churchman, he particularly focused campaigning against marriage equality, or any general social acceptance of homosexuality. “Homosexual activity is a much greater health hazard than smoking”, he declared in response to the suicide of young gay Catholics. So, unlike other accused child abusers, he gained immediate political solidarity from the law-and-order brigade.
These influential right-wing pundits have written feverish defences of Pell over the past few years. They attempted to smear and discredit the victim’s testimony, including through Andrew Bolt’s bizarre private detective work at St Patrick’s Cathedral, filmed on his phone. They softened up the public and at the very least helped pave the way to the High Court’s decision.
Australia’s highest and most respected court has spoken. George Pell is free, already delivering his Easter message to the faithful, asking “why is there so much evil and suffering” in the world. To begin answering his question we could start with the existence of the Catholic Church hierarchy, the appalling justice system and the right-wing culture warriors.
Justice and an end to suffering will not be found in courts designed to punish the poor and exonerate the rich. It will not be delivered by elite political appointees who serve themselves and their class. The rich and powerful will continue to protect the monsters in their midst. They always have and they always will.