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The Cardinal, The Church and Legal Theatre

By Dr Binoy Kampmark

“The world is watching.” Cathy Kezelman, Blue Knot Foundation president, The Washington Post, Jul 25, 2017.

The show on Wednesday was grim, busy, crowded. Cardinal George Pell, the highest Vatican official thus far to be brought within the legal fold of accusation and accountability for historical crimes of sex abuse, fronted for the briefest of shows at a lowly Magistrates Court in Melbourne.

There was much chatter prior to his arrival on Wednesday morning as to what would happen. For one, a taster was provided that the number of police was simply not enough to contain matters. Ringed by the boys and girls in blue, he seemed in a floating daze, though officially committed to the task at hand.

The other point was that the media outlets seemed indifferent to the linguistic differences of “historic” and “historical” in terms of designating the alleged crimes. Would historical sex abuse charges become historic in due course?

A bigger court room, one that would have enabled more spectators to sit, was not in the offing. An ordinary magistrates setting seating up to 80 was going to supply distinct shock treatment, a cold shower of immensity far from the plushness of the Vatican setting. Some journalists grumbled that a more expansive setting should have been provided.

The press were also keen to run snippets and biographies prior to the Wednesday stomp, with the defence team revealed for being proficient in having defended the less savoury elements of society. Robert Richter QC, Pell’s main barrister, was written up in The Age as, “One of Australia’s top criminal barristers who has represented his share of controversial figures.”

Ruth Shann, assisting, was also noted as having previously “represented killer Sean Price, and former St. Kilda footballer Stephen Milne, who was charged with sex offences.” Paul Galbally, completing the charming triumvirate, was quoted as happy to represent those accused of the most serious crimes. “You either have a disposition or a personality that can deal with this work or you don’t.” All too true.

The wily and seasoned Richter, chocked with grand wizard experience, realises that the game is afoot. Keep matters as staggered as possible, possibly over the course of three separate trials. Frustrate the burrowing journalists, those squirreling for information about specific matters.

This, after all, is the steal of the decade, a high figure of the Vatican, effectively the Pope’s accountant. The question is whether his client has the stamina to last such legal wrangling, given the fact that a fate worse than the privations of prison is one permanently engulfed by the sallies of lawyers.

“For the avoidance of doubt,” submitted Richter in court, “and because of the interest, might I indicate that Cardinal Pell will plead not guilty to all the charges and will maintain his presumed innocence that he has.”

Strict control would be maintained over reporting on Pell’s situation. Prosecutor and senior counsel Andrew Tinney was rebuking and stern. There was to be no slack behaviour in observing protocol in terms of protecting the accused and his innocence.

“Any publication of material speculating about the strength or otherwise of the case, the prospect of a fair trial or trials being had, whether the accused should or should not have been charged, the likelihood of conviction or acquittal, or any such matters would be in contempt of court.

But there was little giving: Leaving aside the fizzling pyrotechnics is the sheer secrecy at play. “My apologies,” wrote a disappointed David Marr, short changed on what was being provided. “I can’t tell you what’s going on.”

It had been several months, and the charges were still not clear. “Even if they fell into my lap,” scribbled Marr, “I would not say a word. Why not? Sorry, that’s a secret too.” Outlets such as The Washington Post noted that Pell had made “his first court appearance in Australia on Wednesday on charges of sexual abuse” but were none the wiser as to what they were.

When the Cardinal appeared, he did so in impassive fashion. It was undeniably the Pell show. He had only one ultimate incentive to attend the hearing, something he did not need to: defeat the case against him, and tidy up a sullied name.

Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton claimed that Pell might be taken through an underground entrance in October, given the sheer magnitude of the crush. “There’s a couple of different options that we’ll look at, certainly won’t rule that out.” There was just one snag: “One of the issues going underneath through the roller doors is you’ve got a lot of prisoners down there. We’ve got to get those prisoners up to court.”

The international and local contingents of the press were essentially paying homage to a display with one significant meaning: the imposition of the law over the Church, the temporal order casting its net over a representative of the supposedly divine. But they were also being kept in a darkness that may only partially abate, and if so, over a lengthy period of time.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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  1. Robert REYNOLDS

    I am certainly no lawyer but my feeling is that for the sake of the AIM network and oneself it might be best not to say too much at the moment. However we will all be watching proceedings with a great deal of interest.

  2. Roswell

    Robert is correct.

  3. @RosemaryJ36

    Having studied law and practised, mainly in the criminal law area, for a few years (starting at age 72) I am aware that many people criticise lawyers and barristers who represent someone charged with a particularly heinous criminal offence. Everyone who is charged is assumed to be innocent and the onus of proof – beyond reasonable doubt – is on the prosecution. In addition, everyone is entitled to be defended by a qualified lawyer, who, in serious matters, will usually be a barrister, whose duty is to receive instruction from his client and represent the client’s case accordingly. If and only if the client admits guilt, a lawyer can refuse to submit a plea of not guilty. In a civil case, the onus of proof is less strict, being only on the plaintiff to prove the case on the balance of probabilities. As far as the judgement is concerned, much of the sentencing procedure, if the accused is found guilty, is based on precedent and/or on the Sentencing Act applicable to the jurisdiction – which takes into account finding a balance between punishment of the offender, deterrence for others in the community who might consider committing similar crimes and likelihood of rehabilitation. Precedent is essentially about treating people consistently, so that like crimes receive like penalties, within the bounds of considering specific differences. Locking people up in prison is undesirable in terms of cost and the paucity of appropriate programs for rehabilitation, so the common reaction of “lock them up and throw away the key” is usually far from appropriate. Above all – whatever a barrister may feel personally about the client – he has a duty to the court and to the client to present the case vigorously, based on the client’s instructions, and obtain the best possible result for the client.

  4. James

    It’s funny, when I was in my very early 30’s a friend of mine and I were watching something on the Vatican and the priests here in a once great nation…she pointed at Pell and says “he a pedophile”…I asked her.. how do you know? and she just sat their staring at me…we are both survivors of abuse, and the law, who gives a shit about the law, where were they when we complained, the average sentence in Australia is 18 months, the law is only good for the lawyers who profit from it.

  5. Robert REYNOLDS

    That is a fantastic accomplishment @RosemaryJ36.

    I mean no disrespect but I have little regard for the law. All I know is that it is not to be confused with justice.

    I have taught the physical sciences (mainly chemistry) for a good part of my life. I often joke to my students that,

    “I would rather deliver pamphlets for Woolworth’s than study law”. (Many a true word said in jest!)

    Of course, I am very comfortable with the Gas Laws or Newton’s Laws of Motion, etc. Those laws are a little more reliable and less open to interpretation than those of the ‘human-made’ variety.

  6. Miriam English

    It strikes me that Pell is already receiving special treatment. Can anybody imagine any ordinary person being given such secrecy and care? Sadly, I find it difficult to believe this will be just. However maybe it will and I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong.

    If he is guilty then he needs to be treated exactly the same as any other guilty of those crimes. Unfortunately I just can’t imagine this happening. If he is guilty I think he’ll be let off with a few stern words and walk free. I expect there will be some nonsense excuse made about his age. It wouldn’t even surprise me if the entire proceedings are kept secret so that we never find out fore sure. If that happens we can rest assured he’d been found guilty as I expect they would shout it from the rooftops if he’s found not guilty.

  7. lefturnahead

    I dont know if Pell is guilty,and nobody else does either, only his victims can answer that question!~~

  8. stephengb2014

    Thank you RosemaryJ36,
    I started to study law (but for several silly reasons stopped – the biggest – money).
    Your comments are a timely reminder (in my view) that the law seeks not to take side, but to,seek truth. The processes in law have been developed over centuries to afford an equal chance for the accused to defend themselves.

    Sometimes I dispare at the displays of ignorance about our legal system and process, your comment actually cheered me up! Perhaps I am strange?

    Robert Reynolds – sorry but for all of your statement of admiration and not wishing disrespect, what you said is in fact disrespectful not only to RosemaryJ36, but to a legal system that (whilst yes has many flaws) has proven over the test time to be the best available, for instance the main alternative is the inquisitorial system that says you are automatically guilty, and its up to you to prove otherwise.

    S G B

  9. Aortic

    Never send to know for whom the Pell tolls, it tolls for thee.

  10. Robert REYNOLDS

    Hi stephengb2014,

    Thank you for your reply but I must respectfully disagree with you.

    As I said previously, I meant no disrespect to Rosemary. Anyone who, as a septuagenarian, takes on what she did has my respect and admiration. But I suppose others will interpret my comments as they see fit.

    Now, stephengb2014, as for your beloved ‘legal system’, I stand by my previous comments.

    If you can get behind the paywall have a look at this item from The Age newspaper, entitled,
    “Victoria’s bail system is in disarray” at,


    In case you think that I may be a bit too parochial, then try this article,
    “A murder by a criminal on bail is committed every ten days, and the real number could be even higher” at,


    I can provide umpteen more examples of how much of an ‘ass’ the law is if you wish, stephengb2014. To me stephengb2014, the legal system is a lottery and the more cash you have to pay the lawyers the greater the likelihood of an acquittal.

    You describe the legal system as having been “proven over the test time to be the best available”. Well, as far as I am concerned, stephengb2014, it is not nearly good enough.

    As I have indicated, I have no legal background whatsoever, but from what little I know, I tend to favor an inquisitorial system which seeks to establish the facts rather than have a couple of mealy-mouthed lawyers arguing the point. Also stephengb2014, please provide me with some evidence from a credible source that under the inquisitorial system a suspect is considered automatically guilty until they themselves, prove otherwise.

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