Love George Pell or loathe him, we should all be grateful that justice has been delivered

george pell

Some Australians, including many victims of child sexual abuse, revile George Pell.

Others hold him in high esteem.

Neither of these groups will have their minds changed about Cardinal Pell, ­regardless of what any court might determine.

The majority of Australians fall into neither camp.

Victorian Police

In the midst of controversy and with allegations of gross criminal activity, these Australians expect the police, the prosecution authorities and the courts to do their work diligently, imposing punishment on proven criminals and protecting the rights and liberties of all other citizens.

The Pell saga has now run for more than four years, ever since the Victoria Police commenced an operation on Christmas Eve 2015 seeking evidence of any wrongdoing by Pell around his cathedral during the years 1996-2001, when he was archbishop of Melbourne.

One complainant

This extraordinary trawling exercise turned up only one complainant, whose allegations were taken all the way to trial.

The complainant gave evidence that he and his now-deceased companion were serially assaulted sexually by Pell in the priests’ sacristy immediately after solemn Sunday mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral in late 1996.

He also gave evidence that Pell assaulted him in the sacristy corridor after another mass a couple of months later.

That’s the case the High Court has just thrown out.

Thus the anger and relief at Tuesday’s decision.

Court unanimous and with one voice

The High Court has spoken definitively, unanimously and with one voice.

All seven Justices have agreed that in relation to all five charges, “there is a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted”.

The court ­ordered that Pell’s “convictions be quashed and judgments of acquittal be entered in their place”.

Pell has rightly walked free in time for Easter.

The complainant is left to get on with his life as best he can, wondering what was the point of this protracted legal trauma.

The court accepted that the jury had assessed the complainant’s evidence “as thoroughly credible and reliable”.

In the Victorian Court of Appeal, that step was enough for two of the judges to uphold the convictions.

But the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, Australia’s most experienced criminal appeal court judge, thought that was just the first step of a court’s inquiry, and not the last.

All seven High Court judges agree.

Reasonable doubt

The court needed to examine the record of all the evidence in the case “to see whether, notwithstanding that assessment, the court is satisfied that the jury, acting rationally, ought nonetheless to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to proof of guilt”.

The court unanimously decided that any jury acting rationally must have had a reasonable doubt.

In addition to the complainant, there were many other witnesses called by the prosecution in Pell’s case.

They included 23 witnesses “who were involved in the conduct of solemn mass at the cathedral or who were members of the choir in 1996 and/or 1997”.

Many of these witnesses were also thoroughly credible and reliable, though their reliability faltered at times given that they were trying to recall what they would have been doing after mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral on a particular Sunday 22 years before.

The honesty of these witnesses was not questioned by the prosecution.

In the end, there was just not the evidence to support the complainant’s account.


There never was.

The High Court found that many of these witnesses had given consistent evidence that placed Pell on the steps of the cathedral for at least 10 minutes after mass on December 15 and 22, 1996, the only possible dates when the first four offences could have been committed.

The prosecution “conceded that the offences alleged in the first incident could not have been committed if, following mass, (Pell) had stood on the cathedral steps greeting congregants for 10 minutes”.

The court also found that there was unquestioned evidence by honest witnesses that placed Pell in company with his Master of Ceremonies when he returned to the priests’ sacristy to disrobe.

Furthermore, there was abundant evidence of “continuous traffic into and out of the priests’ sacristy for 10 to 15 minutes” after the altar servers returned to the sacristy at the end of the procession at the conclusion of mass.

There was no five-to-six-minute hiatus for the offences to occur with Pell, the complainant and his companion in the sacristy alone, together and uninterrupted, straight after mass.

A tragedy

The tragedy of this case for everyone, including victims and complainants (and most especially this complainant), is that an ordinary police investigation would have highlighted these problems with the complainant’s account.

When interviewed in Rome back in October 2016 by Victorian police officers who were being supervised by their Deputy Commissioner, Shane Patton, Pell told the police that the sacristy was “a hive of activity” after mass with altar servers, sacristan, assistant sacristan, money collectors and any concelebrating priests coming and going.

He said he would have been accompanied at all relevant times by his MC Charles Portelli.

The police returned to Australia and interviewed Portelli and the sacristan, Max Potter, who basically confirmed all Pell had said about the “hive of activity”.

But police did not bother to interview one single altar server.

They made no inquiries about money collectors or concelebrating priests.

They just went ahead and charged Pell, and with great media fanfare.

They went ahead building a case on the idea the priests’ sacristy might have been left ­vacant and open on this one particular day, contrary to all church routine and ritual.

The High Court rightly observed that “adherence to ritual and compliance with ­established liturgical practice is a defining feature of religious observance”.

The farce of the case was the ­belated attempt by the Director of Public Prosecutions to create the space for the necessary hiatus.

At trial, the prosecutor suggested, contrary to the evidence, the altar servers might have adjourned to another room, for no reason, for five to six minutes before being called back to the priests’ sacristy to resume their duties.

He had to withdraw that suggestion before the jury.

In the High Court, the DPP submitted once again that the servers might have adjourned to another room or to the sanctuary to assist the sacristan.

The High Court dealt with this suggestion kindly but firmly: “The submission comes close to repeating the submission which the prosecutor withdrew at the trial.

“There was no evidence that the altar servers went to their room to disrobe prior to returning to the sanctuary in order to assist in clearing away the sacred vessels and other objects.”

In the end, there was just not the evidence to support the complainant’s account.

There never was.

For the good of all victims and complainants, Victoria’s DPP and police must review procedures for cases like this.

Those who neither canonise nor despise George Pell should be grateful the High Court has delivered justice according to law in this protracted saga.

  • Frank Brennan is a Jesuit priest and lawyer who attended some of the Pell court proceedings. This article was first published in The Australian newspaper.
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