The Legal, Political, Spiritual and Canonical Implications of Cardinal Pell’s Conviction


National Catholic Register, 04 September 2019

This case is a stark warning of a new circumstance in which faithful Christians have to reckon with suffering for their beliefs.

The conviction of Cardinal George Pell in Melbourne, Australia, recently upheld upon appeal, has legal, political, spiritual and canonical implications.

The legal consequences are most obvious: Cardinal Pell is incarcerated and — if his appeal to Australia’s High Court is not successful — will have to serve as long as six years in prison.

The most important legal consequence is the changing standard of what constitutes the burden of proof in sexual-misconduct trials. Professor Gerard Bradley expertly reviewed that legal issue in the Register recently.

The trial court, upheld 2-1 by the Victorian Court of Appeal, took the position that a testimony of a single witness, entirely uncorroborated, is sufficient to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even in the face of vehement denials by the accused and some 20 witnesses giving evidence on the greatly implausible facts of the alleged crime. If the High Court agrees that the Court of Appeal applied the correct standard of weighing evidence, it is hard to see how any accused could be acquitted absent an evidently delusional accuser. The standard for acquittal offered by the Court of Appeal reverses the onus and requires the accused to prove the metaphysical impossibility of the crime being committed.

A third legal consequence is unremarkable, but often goes unremarked. The belief that Cardinal Pell has been wrongly convicted is widespread, reaching far beyond his admirers. This has led some to question the integrity of Australian justice more generally. Others have argued that criminal-justice systems in democratic countries have to be respected, even if the outcome is not as desired.

Neither view acknowledges that wrongful convictions happen more often than we could care to admit: in Australia, in Canada, in the United States. In fact, there are entire institutes that take up the cases of the wrongfully convicted. Usually, they only take murder cases, as their resources are too limited to address the full spectrum of wrongful convictions.

In the United States, there have been men on death row who have been exonerated after sentencing. In Canada, the leading forensic child pathologist in the country provided false testimony over the course of 20 years that wrongfully convicted parents of killing their own children.

And it is not just the poor and defenseless who get wrongfully convicted. The late Sen. Ted Stevens, one of the longest-serving senators in the history of the United States and defended by the top legal team in the country, was falsely convicted of fraud after senior prosecutors at the U.S. Justice Department deliberately  suborned false testimony and hid exculpatory evidence.

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