Life Matters

The coronavirus classroom: Cardinal George Pell

We are all part of a social experiment due to the coronavirus (Covid-19). Our lives have significantly changed. Living in a free-market, capitalist society, we could always choose how to live our daily lives. But this choice has been taken away by the coronavirus. We do not know what will be our ‘new normal’ that is weeks, months or a year away.

Given our new way of living is this an opportunity for learning? For me, I feel like I have been placed in the coronavirus classroom – a new place of learning. All of us, in our digital age, have an opportunity to acquire new skills. There are self-help videos for those DIY home projects or personal development, all available through the touch of a keyboard. Or is it easier to chill out on the couch watching Netflix or online gaming in our coronavirus classroom? Children continue to learn via an online classroom – the coronavirus classroom, the one at home.

Today, my first subject in the coronavirus classroom is on Cardinal George Pell and the High Court of Australia’s decision in regard to Pell v The Queen. I have followed Pell’s case due to my interest in the harm caused by sexual abuse to children, which is unfortunately carried into adulthood.

Also, I am interested in truth, social justice, equality and human rights. I was brought up in the Catholic Church but no longer a practicing Catholic. Not that this should matter to anyone. However, what it tells you, the reader, is that I am not a member of the Catholic Church. There have been so many injustices under the banner of the Catholic Church and people have a right to an opinion on Pell. But do they?

I could never form a view one way or the other about the charges brought against Pell. I did not have all the evidence and I did not sit in the court room to hear the court proceedings, where he was found guilty of child sexual assault.

Following special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia Cardinal George Pell’s convictions were quashed and the judgments of acquittal were entered in their place. Within hours of the judgment being handed down by the court Pell left Barwon Prison in Victoria. He had spent 405 days in prison.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, we must pursue justice and truth for all.

Due to the coronavirus no one could protest outside the court on the day the High Court’s decision was handed down. There was no gathering of protesters outside the Barwon Prison, like there was on 11 March 2020, outside the High Court of Australia, in Canberra, with their placards saying,  ‘Burn in hell Pell.’ Prior to this, at Pell’s trial, there were protests and heckling outside the court. But this was before the coronavirus lockdown. People like to have their voices heard, protesting is one way. When there is an injustice the volume should always be turned up.

Back in the 1960s, in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr standing up for justice, participated in non-violent protests against the treatment of African Americans (blacks) and segregation laws. He subsequently ended up in prison. From the Bermingham Jail he wrote a letter and in part it said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’

Within minutes of the High Court of Australia’s decision regarding Pell I looked at comments on twitter. I was astonished reading some of the comments. One of these was from Barrie Cassidy a well-regarded Australian political journalist. He said, ‘The High Court has found there is not enough evidence to convict. It did not find him innocent. You are then entitled to maintain your view and you are under no obligation to apologise for holding those views.’ Cassidy, like many others had a view and their view was that Pell was guilty and now lucky to have his charges quashed. So many people and so many views and how many read the High Court of Australia’s judgment (7 April 2020)? It is absorbing reading.

I, like others, am disgusted at the history of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and brothers in the Catholic Church. Men who were in the position of role models, whom children should have been able to trust. Sexual abuse of children is abhorrent. Children must be listened to and believed. Yet, the research literature tells us that false allegations of child sexual abuse, though rare, does happen. Cardinal Pell in his interview with Andrew Bolt (a social and political commentator) said that his accuser, Witness J, may have been used. That is, used by others to bring down the Catholic Church and to bring down Pell, who was the third highest ranking Vatican official in 2018.

There was one person, Victim J, an adult male, who was the complainant in the Pell case. The other alleged victim had taken his own life years earlier. After Pell’s convictions were quashed I read the statement from Witness J, who was never identified. I found his comments respectful, but passive. In part he said, ‘This case does not define me. I am a man who came forward for my friend who, sadly, is no longer with us.’ He never said anything about his own abuse. There was no mention of this or a comment about him coming forward to tell the truth. Also, there was no anger or annoyance that the evidence went so against his statement of facts. The High Court of Australia judgment stated, ‘For the reasons to be given, it is evident that there is “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”.

There are lessons to be learnt from what happened to Pell. In the coronavirus classroom I ask the question ‘What does the Pell acquittal mean for justice?’ It means that any one of us can expect justice through the judicial system in Australia, eventually. The High Court of Australia, seven judges, did not have a view overshadowed by their personal biases or beliefs, they looked at the evidence. Their comments are scathing on two of the Victorian Court of Appeal judges, the jury who found Pell guilty and the Victorian prosecutors.

Yes, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It is 40 years since Lindy Chamberlain was wrongly convicted of murdering her infant child in the Northern Territory. The case divided public opinion in Australia. Views and prejudices were held by the media and the public who did not know all the facts. Another well-known case in Australia is Di Fingleton, former Chief Magistrate of Queensland, convicted of the offence of intimidation of a witness. Fingleton’s conviction was quashed by the High Court of Australia after she had spent six months in prison. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That is what I am learning in the coronavirus classroom?

But I am just one bystander, others have more to say about truth and justice in the Pell case. When listening to the first 13 minutes commentary on the Pell case by Martyn Iles from the Australian Christian Lobby, I learnt a few things in the coronavirus classroom. The truth is very telling.

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