When Swedish authorities charged WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with sexual assault and rape, he absconded. He mounted up every excuse to evade justice. He hid for half a decade, curled up in a one bedroom Ecuadorian embassy. Throughout all this he remained the media’s hero; he could do no wrong, a champion for the common people, working for the betterment of a free society. Compare Assange’s treatment with that of Cardinal George Pell. Without a trial commencing, without charges being laid and not even at the conclusion of the investigative process, ABC journalist Louise Milligan declared Pell’s guilt with a stroke of her pen – on page 4 of her book, The Cardinal – The Rise and Fall of George Pell.
A narrative has been fed which seeks to obliterate Pell’s character in the public sphere – with the leaks by Victorian Police to the media, the subsequent trial by media – ABC reports and books written about untested allegations. Add to this the media’s painting of the blatantly false and inaccurate representations of Pell during the Royal Commission as someone who covered up clergy abuse, and who refused to return to Australia to face the music, despite a heart condition verified by multiple cardiologists and his giving the exact same evidence via video link that he would have in person.
It is without doubt that Pell is a deeply polarising figure in Australian society – since the 1990s he took the mantle as the leading Christian commentator on a variety of issues in this country. If a cross-section of society is taken (say, off the electoral roll, as jurors are), it would be fair to assume that people either love Pell or loathe him, and there is no middle ground. You cannot simply not have an opinion or be neutral about a highly divisive public figure, like Pell. Given the trial by media, the lies, character assassination, leaks and media hysteria, one cannot be so naive as to suggest this prejudicial pretrial publicity will have no flow on effect on the predisposition of any potential juror, who, under law, ought only consider the evidence presented in a court of law.
Pell’s Character Assassination
The witch hunt against Cardinal Pell has not been abrupt and sudden – it started years ago, with the Victorian parliamentary inquiry and Royal Commission painting him as an individual who covered up child sexual abuse, moved pedophile priests to different parishes, all with no evidence to back this up. When Pell was elevated to Archbishop of Melbourne (which is when we ought to start judging his treatment of the sexual abuse crisis), within months he set up the “Melbourne Response” to respond to claims of child sex abuse in 1996. This was revolutionary – it was a first of its kind mechanism to formally deal with child sexual abuse within the Church – anywhere in the world. As Archbishop, Pell created a complaints commission run by a senior counsel to deal with complaints and promised $50,000 to be paid to the victims of assault. Do we ever hear of this? Or of the grateful victims who have been dignified with compensation without going through civil proceedings?
The answer is no. Pell’s character assassination by the liberal media has been going on for decades now. Orwellian ideology has never been more relevant, with the Left seeking to annihilate and abolish minority groups that refuse to conform to their degenerate modern trends and culture of groundless populism. Paul Bongiorno, a political journalist was a former priest who lived in the presbytery in Warrapool with Pell and notorious pedophile Fr Ridsdale. Bongiorno on Radio Breakfast said, “Let me tell you that Ridsdale never came into the presbytery in Warrnambool and said: “Guess how many boys I’ve raped today?” They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me. And when it came out, after I’d left the priesthood, I was shocked and I was ashamed.” Contrast this with Pell. The media parades the fact that he lived with Ridsdale, and contends that it is evidence that Pell ought to have known of Ridsale’s abuse, and holds Pell as responsible. Gerard Henderson, described it best, contending “the lack of balance in the media’s reporting of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church reflects the fact many journalists detest Pell’s conservatism.”
Milligan’s claims: legitimate or bogus?
In a 3 July issue of The Institute on Religion and Public Life, Julia Yost discloses Milligan’s claims concerning Pell’s supposed ‘victims’: Pell allegedly molesting a twelve-year-old as a seminarian in 1961; Pell allegedly assaulting two boys in the Eureka Stockade Pool in Ballarat in the summer of 1978-1979; Pell’s alleged indecent exposure at the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club during the summer of 1986-87 in front of three boys aged 8-10; and Pell allegedly performing oral sex on two drunken 14 year old boys at St Patrick’s Cathedral, as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1998.
With not one, but many claims, one might think, surely there is an element of truth entrenched somewhere in these claims? Julie Yost delves into this question in her commentary, highlighting that, “the dazzling proliferation of claimants and allegations is common in spurious sex abuse cases.” That is, alleged victims can be actors with a part to play in some orchestrated agenda, living a lie and luring us into their world of make-believe.
This is not without precedent, in the most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history – the McMartin Preschool trial, the staff of a Manhattan Beach daycare were accused of molesting 41 children, with 321 charges laid. Following six years of criminal trials, with no convictions, all charges were dropped. Every charge was false and every child a liar. This was not an isolated incident – the Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions in Washington in 1994 to 1995 is another example. 43 adults were arrested for 29,726 counts of sexual abuse. In 1995, every charge was dropped.
The cumulative weight of multiple charges therefore, is not an inference of guilt. Rather, each individual charge must be challenged, given the full evidential scrutiny of the criminal law, before a jury can determine guilt.
A Fair Trial?
With 800 years passing since the creation of the Magna Carta, with its enshrinement of human rights and promises of liberty, one can only ponder whether this ancient relic is applicable in our age of polarisation. At the crux of our criminal law system is the right to a trial by jury, the intermediary link between the criminal justice system and society. But, given prejudicial pretrial media bias, has this ‘right’ turned into a form of brutal repression?
The issue of prejudicial pretrial publicity and the right to a fair trial was considered by the High Court in R v Glennon . In this case, Fr Michael Glennon was charged for child molestation. Though Fr Glennon was rightfully proven to be guilty, I am highly critical of the High Court’s ruling that the right to a fair trial is not threatened by pretrial publicity. Allan Ardill, editor of the Griffith Law Review, argues, “There must be reasonable doubt because inadmissible and inappropriate information may have been used by the jury to reach their verdict.” Applying this precedent to Pell’s case is catastrophic, particularly for a jury that will be easily prejudiced by the current anti-Catholic climate created by mass media. If Victoria had the option of judge-only trials, this issue could easily be resolved – judges, trained in the letter of the law and the rules of evidence, will be much more likely to separate what occurs outside a courtroom and what happens inside, whereas this disposition may not be so with an impressionable juror.
Police leaks: the annihilation of due process
Of all the legal anomalies concerning the Pell case, the most concerning is that somewhere between Victoria Police Sano Taskforce and the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP) is a ‘maliciously-timed’ leak. In 2016, the OPP reviewed the brief of evidence given by the police and returned it back to Victoria Police. Recommendations to charge Pell were not disclosed, allowing us to presume that there was not enough evidence to survive a committal hearing. Leaks from this preliminary investigation resulted in a an hour long, ABC investigative piece by Milligan, against Pell. Alleged victims and Pell’s ecclesiastical enemies were interviewed. There was limited and cursory analysis of the weaknesses of the allegations. It was nothing more than a prejudicial report to sway public opinion and infer Pell’s guilt to the common bystander. Regardless of Commissioner Ashton’s contention that the ABC piece was a product of Milligan’s journalistic investigation, the nature of the allegations and the detailed knowledge and investigation indicates the subject matter of Milligan’s report could only have originated from Victorian Police. It was a maliciously timed leak, especially in the backdrop of Pell’s name being dragged through the media in the Royal Commission. The character assassination was successful – inflicting untold reputational damage on Pell, and no doubt influencing the public’s opinion of him – the same public from which a jury is selected.
In May 2017, another brief of evidence was put together and sent to the OPP. They gave Victoria Police the ‘green-light’ to charge Pell. Within the span of a few hours, this confidential information appeared on the front page of various newspapers. Once again, this could only have been released by Victorian Police. I am not the only sceptic. Andrew Halphen (co-chairman of the criminal-law section of the Law Institute of Victoria), also said that he could not think of any “other matter in recent memory where a DPP’s advice to the police in respect of whether or not to charge a person finds its way to the front page of a major news publication before a person is actually charged.” What is even more alarming is that these unfounded allegations had not been brought to Pell by the Victorian police. Concerns pertaining to this violation of due process were raised in a statement from the Office of Cardinal George Pell: “It is outrageous that these allegations have been brought to the Cardinal’s attention through a media leak.”
Royal Commission wrap-ups
Without attempting to hush up the crimes committed by representatives of the Catholic Church, we must face the alarming fact that there is a clear media overrepresentation of allegations against Catholic priests due to anti-Catholic schadenfreude. Like the person who supports the current definition of marriage is a bigot, the Catholic priest is automatically a de facto pedophile. Though the media think that they are a champion of the underdog, they see the Catholic Church as a power-hungry institution that they must obliterate.
Sydney-lawyer and co-ordinator of Catholic Talk, Monica Doumit, provides a concise and informed summary of the wrap-up sessions of the Royal Commission institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Commission reported 1,880 alleged abusers from the Catholic Church. Let’s compare this to the Uniting Church, which has been the subject of over 2,504 allegations of child abuse in the past 40 years, despite being five times smaller than the Catholic Church. Or the Jehovah’s Witness organisations, with 1006 alleged abusers, despite being 50 times smaller than the Catholic Church. I dislike the idea of finger-pointing and name shaming, but to focus on protecting the best interests of children, we need a balanced examination of all institutions. We must stop singling out the Catholic Church.
Pell the scapegoat
We have seen leaks, character assassination, pronouncements of guilt without charges being laid, and a trial by media. Is this a show trial, with Pell standing as a scapegoat before an altar of liberalism and before his political and ecclesiastical enemies who are baying for his blood? Is Pell being punished for the failings and crimes of the other Ballarat priests? Amanda Vanstone, sums it up best, asserting, “Pell’s trial by media has to stop…what we are seeing is no better than a lynch mob from the dark ages.”
The regressive Left are overturning fundamental aspects of our liberal democracy, values we once took for granted; the right to disagree, to voice our opinions however controversial. The Left now adopt a lynch mob attitude to those who oppose them, throwing terms like ‘bigot’ at those who challenge the redefinition of marriage, discussing the issues with gender dysphoria and protecting the sanctity of life. In doing so, the Left has created a noxious public climate. If it is so easy for the Left to paint someone as a racist bigot for criticising section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, or for defending natural marriage, is it that much of a leap for the Left to act as judge, jury and executioner when the opportunity presents itself to bring down the prince of the Catholic Church – an institution which is the ideological enemy of the Left?
Georgette Bechara is a first year commerce/law student and is an active member with both the Catholic Society and the Conservative Club.