The substantial ongoing hostility directed towards Cardinal Pell including vandalism of Church property despite the unanimous High Court judgment in his favour emphasises the need to promote community understanding of the reasons why the Court overturned his conviction.
The case against Pell rested entirely upon the unsupported allegations of one complainant. That in itself should not, and does not, preclude a jury from finding an accused guilty as convictions for sexual assaults and other crimes that occur in private demonstrate.
However, the case against Cardinal Pell was not one involving a factual dispute solely between a complainant and a defendant with no witnesses or other evidence available to assist in determining the truth of the accusation.
In support of Pell's innocence was the unchallenged evidence of witnesses that affirmed (i) his practice of meeting congregants after Mass at the time when he was alleged to have committed the offences, (ii) that the Master of Ceremonies would accompany him at all times after Mass including to the priests' sacristy where the offences were alleged to have occurred, and (iii) that after Mass the sacristy would be a 'hive of activity' with many individuals entering and leaving the room.
The High Court held that these three factors 'required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant's guilt … [which meant there was] a significant possibility … that an innocent person has been convicted'. A similar finding was made in relation to the second assault that the complainant alleged had occurred in the Cathedral.
The High Court made reference to other factors that brought further doubt on the merits of the conviction but considered that these three factors alone provided a sufficient basis to acquit Pell.
The significance of the decision
It is unfortunate that some commentators are arguing that the High Court acquitted Pell on a technicality.
The use of the term 'technicality' implies that Pell was acquitted on the basis of some obscure legal rule or a 'loophole' in the law that has allowed a guilty person to walk free.
Such a position demonstrates ignorance of the High Court's reasoning that affirmed that the jury should have acquitted Pell for the three reasons mentioned.
This is not an acquittal based on a 'technicality' but rather a finding that goes to the fundamental pillar of our criminal justice system: that the evidence against Pell failed to reach the evidentiary standard of 'beyond reasonable doubt'.
That juries and courts can reach incorrect verdicts that need to be overturned should not surprise anyone as the many cases of wrongful convictions demonstrate. In Australia, for example, some of the more notable cases where unjust convictions have been overturned include Colin Campbell Ross, the Mickelberg brothers, Andrew Mallard and Lindy Chamberlain.
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