In one of those coincidences, earlier in the week, I was thinking how Waleed Aly’s character reference for a footballer drew more flack and attention than Tony Abbott’s 1997 decision to write a letter describing Father Nestor as a “beacon of humanity” when the priest was facing indecent assault charges. So when charges against George Pell were announced, I had to wonder if Tony would be rushing to write another such letter!
Now, I want to say at the outset that I’m not judging Cardinal Pell and that I firmly believe that everyone has the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. I remember arguing that John Howard’s position on David Hicks bordered on absurd because Howard basically agreed that the presumption of innocence was very important but it didn’t matter in the Hicks’ case because we all knew he was guilty. You don’t pick and choose who has something we regard as a right, because, quite simply, if you don’t believe that people automatically get it, then you obviously don’t consider it a right.
So, I’ll strongly argue against pre-judging George Pell and I’d also remind people that it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be “exonerated” as some people are suggesting. At best, he’ll be able to say that he was found “Not Guilty” which simply means that a case against him wasn’t proven. To suggest that this would mean he was “exonerated” is no more true than for Pell, than it was for O.J. Simpson.
Of course, this belief in the necessity of proving guilt is what enables a fair trial. Or at least, that’s the way it should work. The media shouldn’t be trying to influence a trial, and a person’s guilt or innocence should be determined by the evidence presented in a court of law. Neither the media nor politicians should be trying to put pressure on judges and juries, even if they argue that they’re just reflecting public opinion. I can’t emphasise this enough: There is an enormous difference between commenting on sentencing generally and putting pressure on a court for a particular result while a trial is in progress. After all, do we really something like this:
“Your honour, we didn’t feel that the prosecution demonstrated what an evil man we’re dealing with here, but thankfully we all got to watch ‘A Current Affair’ and we’d like to find him guilty in spite of your instruction that we should dismiss the case on the evidence presented.”
“Thank you, you’re discharged and I’m very glad that you chose to ignore my instructions because my good friend Dyson Heydon rang me during the week and pointed out that the defendant seemed to be lying just like some of those Labor politicians at the Royal Commission. Not only that, but Malcolm Turnbull announced that if only judges gave tough sentences then he’d find it a lot easier to argue for an increase to our pay.”
No, courts make decisions because they look at evidence. And there are rules around what constitutes evidence which make the legal system, if not completely fair, at least fairer than the sort of hatchet jobs that the media does from time to time.
Of course, the interesting thing with Pell is the number of people keen to defend him. While it’s reasonable to remind ourselves that, of course, he may be innocent of all charges, this is certainly one case where we don’t need to do that. Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt and others are doing that for us. In fact, I’ve never seen so many reminders that the person might not be guilty. In Devine’s case, she’s gone as far as to say something that may lead one to infer that this was a trumped-up charge designed to take the attention away from crime figures, which is a pretty serious charge to be levelling against the police. I imagine she must have some evidence for this and isn’t just speculating in a totally irresponsible way. I expect that Pell’s defence team will be contacting her as one of their star witlesses… Oh, sorry, that should be “witnesses”…
Andrew Bolt is content with telling us what a wonderful bloke old George is. Yep, Malcolm and Waleed did give Houli a testimonial too but, in the end, the AFL tribunal decided that character was all very well, but the important thing was what Houli did on the field that counted. But, while reminding myself that good old George should be presumed innocent, the history of sexual abuse cases suggests that simply being a good bloke is no guarantee that the person is innocent. There are more occasions when the guilty party has been a pillar of the community than where parents have said, “Yes, well, we always thought it a bit strange the way, Fred kept wanting to take our sons on weekends. We were always a bit dubious and we used to wonder what he got up to with our kids, but hey, it was free babysitting so we figured it was best not to ask too many questions even though we were pretty sure that he was up to no good.” Still, if Andrew thinks that talking about how much people have hated George for being a “conservative warrior” is somehow relevant, I guess it’s a free country. Some might consider it an attempt to influence people who could potentially be on the jury, but I think we need to give Bolt the benefit of the doubt and to presume that he wouldn’t intentionally do something like that.
Personally, I’m going to try very hard not comment from here on. Even if Cardinal Pell’s doctor decides that he’s too ill to travel, he still needs to be given the presumption of innocence. So I’ll leave to the likes of Devine and Bolt to suggest that only Pell deserves the presumption of innocence and his accusers can be presumed guilty.