Comment on the Acquittal of Cardinal George Pell – 7 April 2020

Cardinal Pell’s arrest, trial, conviction, imprisonment and, now, ultimate acquittal by the High Court of Australia on Tuesday 7 April have represented a most significant succession of events – both in the history of the Catholic Church in Australia, in our society more generally, and specifically in Australian – and Victorian – judicial conduct. This journey has clearly come at immense personal cost to those involved:  to the one who brought the complaint against the Cardinal in the first instance, and, undeniably, to Cardinal Pell himself.

Australia prides itself in its independent, objective, and transparent judiciary. The forensic process of judicial appeal that has now concluded provides us with the confidence that these qualities, ultimately, endure. 

Notwithstanding, the outcome of the High Court decision that Cardinal Pell has been wrongly convicted also raises questions about the system itself which cannot remain unaddressed – questions about how genuine justice for both those who accuse and who are accused is pursued and delivered.

For both the Church and the nation this must be a moment of deep reflection. Two people – the one accused and the one who has accused – have had their lives irreparably damaged by a process which has now been demonstrated in as clear and as objective way possible not to be sufficiently robust in its premises and processes. 

How can this be understood? 

After nearly 25 years of exposure of sexual abuse within the community of the Church and the inadequacies of its leadership to deal effectively with such crimes, it cannot be surprising that society refuses credibility to churchmen. The Church itself, collectively, stands accused before society. Invariably there arises a need to shape such accusation in tangible and even in vengeful ways.The test, however, of a civilized nation lies in those structures and processes that can withstand influence and pressure that is subjective and personal so that true justice, which is objective and social, is never lost.

Just as the Church must accept the implications of its own irresponsibility, so, too, the nation must accept responsibility for its own failure to protect properly the well-being of both those who accuse and who are accused.

If we are to enter this subsequent period with thoughtfulness and care, both Church and nation must pause and reflect. How has this situation come about by which the lives of two people have been taken on such tragic journeys with such devastating consequences for each in different ways? What have been the contributing factors which might outline where change is required in the future ahead – for both Church and society?

The future belongs to those who can enter the situation as it presents itself in it all of its complexity and discern the invitation that lays in the swirl of its myriad questions. At this significant moment of Cardinal Pell’s release, we pray for Cardinal Pell. We pray for his health and future as he begins to piece his life together again. We pray, also, for the one whom we do not know who has been central to this drama – the one who brought forward the accusation – and who has suffered, too, in ways that are immeasurable.

And we pray for ourselves, for light and for wisdom. Adapting T.S Eliott’s words in The Dry Salvages (1941) in Four Quartets, let us not be those “who have the experience but miss the meaning.”

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