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The smell of Pell

20/12/2018

Pell leaves court

“The Catholic Church is no more legally responsible for priests who abuse children than a trucking company which employs a driver who molests women.” – Cardinal George Pell

This might be an illegal blogpost.

A Victorian court has granted a suppression order preventing the Australian media from reporting this story and most international outlets have complied with geoblocking, preventing access by Australians who lack the internet skills of an average 12 year old. I don’t know if the order covers social media or if that’s ever been tested but I’m doing what I think the editors of Australian media outlets should have done en masse and ignoring it.

So what’s the story?

On December 11th Australia’s highest ranking Catholic cleric and – until last week – one of the most powerful men in the Vatican hierarchy, Cardinal George Pell, was convicted of historic sex offences against children. Judge Peter Kidd granted the order preventing all reporting of the two completed trials against him (the first resulting in a hung jury) until a pending one for further child sex offences is complete. It’s expected that Pell’s legal team will apply to extend the order through the appeal process, which could drag on for years, but as it stands it will remain in force until February at least.

That’s a pretty big story, especially given the amount of coverage the original accusations and the campaign to make Pell return to Australia to face charges received. Some Murdoch outlets ran pieces saying something was being suppressed without saying what it was. Pell’s subsequent removal from the Pope’s Council of Advisors was widely reported but not why he was dropped (The Guardian claimed he was merely facing prosecution; two days after his conviction). Apart from that there’s been no hint in local media of the evidence for or against Pell, the failure of the first trial or the verdict of the second.

Courts generally grant media suppression orders to (supposedly) protect the safety and public standing of the innocent – whether a victim of crime, a vulnerable witness or an accused for whom the strength of evidence is yet to be evaluated – and to offer a ritualistic nod to the laughable notion of impartial jury selection. Although orders protecting the identity of victims – especially children – often continue indefinitely it’s very unusual for those protecting the accused to persist after a committal hearing has established a trial is warranted. As far as I know it’s unprecedented for such an order to remain in force throughout trial, conviction and afterwards – at least in criminal cases.

Naturally applying such measures to a high profile case is anachronistic in the internet age but I was surprised at how effective it was; against me at least. I remained in the dark about the trials until yesterday and no-one I’ve spoken to had heard a thing. Doubtless they’re major talking points in legal, media, church and political circles though. Which is a problem.

Australian media has mounted challenges against suppression orders in the past, usually on ‘public interest’ grounds. To them the most pressing public interest is in maintaining the influence and profitability of corporate media and they’re quite protective of their right to conduct trials-by-media and promote the sort of lynch mob mentality that makes for good visuals outside the courthouse. But this time they have a point.

The worldwide Catholic church child sex abuse scandal has been characterised by silence and cover-up, both by the church itself and by other powerful institutions; including law enforcement, courts, governments and the media. No ordinary Australian would be granted the sort of suppression order applied to Pell’s case and I doubt even the best connected politicians or celebrities could have swung it. Only billionaires, big corporations and very senior legal professionals can expect such privileged treatment from an Australian court.

For the many thousands of victims of clerical abuse this must seem like another example of the establishment closing ranks to protect an abuser and a sign that despite all the uproar and hand-wringing nothing has changed. For partisan outlets with an axe to grind this is a chance to present one-sided, self-serving coverage without fear of contradiction. And when the order is finally lifted and fully revealed the resultant public outrage will give the media a golden opportunity to reshape Australian suppression order guidelines to their liking.

The Catholic News Agency has already published an article (original blocked in Australia) suggesting the verdict was a blatant miscarriage of justice brought about by anti-Catholic prejudice in the Australian media and judiciary – a claim that may have been credible forty years ago but which now smacks of persecutory delusion. Reporter Ed Condon makes serious accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and, by implication, indifference to it by Judge Kidd. He also presents details of the defence case as rock solid proof of Pell’s innocence while failing to mention any of the evidence that persuaded a jury to convict him. Condon hints the suppression order itself is part of a conspiracy against Pell; a claim supported by the fact it was requested by prosecutors, not Pell. Naturally all his sources are anonymous, allegedly to protect them from contempt of court charges, though my understanding is that the crime is in publishing the details, not talking to reporters about them.

I have no idea of the merits of the cases against Pell. How could I? I’m not allowed to know. But given his prominent role in the Church, the part he played in ignoring and facilitating abuses committed by others, his arrogance and insensitivity towards victims and his success in quarantining church assets from compensation claims it was almost to be expected he would face accusations such as these. And Australian courts have a long track record of unsafe convictions in high profile cases. By the time the facts of the trial come to light many people will have already drawn firm conclusions from a steady trickle of one-sided information in the absence of informed critical analysis. The inevitable rumours surrounding the case look set to influence Pell’s upcoming trial more than open coverage could and even if his appeal is successful the smell of guilt will hang around him more cloyingly than ever. It seems doubtful either the Catholic church or the Australian legal system will see their tattered reputations enhanced by such Kafkaesque opacity.

It’s said that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. It’s also said that justice delayed is justice denied. By withholding the facts of such an important case from the public the Australian judiciary yet again demonstrates its cavalier attitude towards the most fundamental tenets of what it purports to uphold.

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Postscript: George Pell’s Wikipedia entry now reflects his conviction and is not geo-blocked in Australia. I wonder if potential jurors in his next trial will be asked if they’ve seen it.

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