On the 21st of August, 2019, George Pell’s convictions were upheld by Victoria’s Court of Appeal.
The stigma and shame of experiencing sexual violence often results in the silence of those who have been harmed. We know that, in many cases, sexual assault can take decades to report; if ever reported at all. I had hoped that the Court of Appeal’s decision would bring vindication, relief, and empowerment to people who had experienced childhood abuse; irrespective of whether they had ever reported the crimes committed against them. I had hoped that those who were currently pursuing justice would feel buoyed in their plight. I had hoped that those who were suffering silently would now feel safe to tell someone what happened to them and know that they would be believed.
Instead, I felt disappointed.
I was disappointed that, in the minutes following the Court’s decision, Pell’s supporters had attributed his demise to a “witch hunt”, based on “implausible” evidence. This ruling was an opportunity for Pell’s supporters, in spite of their clear admiration and affection for Pell, to acknowledge that he had been convicted of a revolting crime, and commended the courage of the man who came forward to seek justice for his childhood self and his now-deceased friend. They could have mustered the courage to acknowledge that someone who held in the highest regard was found to be capable of horrible things. They could have acknowledged that they were not privy to the evidence presented in Court, and therefore could not make an accurate assessment of how “implausible” the evidence was.
This unwavering endorsement of Pell demonstrates a lack of faith in our Judges, our juries, our Police, and our justice system more broadly. Most of all, this position demonstrates a complete dismissal of the young boy, now a man, who was violated by Pell.
Those who work with people who have experienced sexual assault know just how difficult it is to get a case of historic sexual abuse even through a committal hearing. Sexual assault is our most underreported crime, and only around 60% of cases that are brought to trial result in a conviction. Without hearing the evidence first-hand or being present in Court for the trial or appeal, this information alone suggests to me that the evidence against Pell was vigorous enough to deliver a unanimous jury verdict, and to be upheld on appeal.
I have chosen to put my own feelings aside in order to try and understand why George Pell’s supporters would continue to be steadfast in their belief that he is innocent. We cannot challenge attitudes without at least attempting to understand them. However, this has left me with many questions, and few answers. Given that there is often little evidence beyond witness accounts in sexual abuse cases, what evidence in historical cases would his supporters deem sufficient? Why should someone’s previous ‘good character’ be a crucial determinant in whether they can commit a crime? Why would a man, who has chosen to remain anonymous, who does not see himself as a crusader or advocate, endure the trauma of a criminal trial process purely as a “witch hunt” or due to a “fantasy”?
Questions have been raised by some about the credibility of evidence provided during the trial, challenging it by saying that Pell would not have committed these crimes in a location where there was a high risk of being caught. In response, I would encourage those of such a view to read case studies presented to the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. A common thread is the arrogance and cruelty of those who chose to abuse. Some people reported being abused while their peers slept metres away. The imbalance of power between children who are harmed and those who harm children is so great that those who did report what happened to them were often disbelieved, or even punished. In my view, disbelieving the evidence due to the risk of being caught does not consider the power dynamics that allow child sexual abuse to occur.
A further argument is that Pell did not have any previous convictions. I would put to those who hold this view that neither did Pell’s former colleague, friend, and roommate Gerald Risdale, prior to 1993. Risdale was subsequently convicted on several occasions between 1993 and 2017 of the abuse of 65 children. Countless other people, convicted of murder, sexual assault, and other serious crimes had no previous criminal convictions. The common discourse of a crime being “out of character” is unhelpful, and it needs to stop.
Whilst I respect the right to share one’s opinion, and strongly believe in free press, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. I sincerely hope that support for Pell among some in the public arena does not prevent people who have been abused from speaking out and seeking justice. I hope that people who carry with them the pain of abuse are not caused further pain by their words.
Instead, it is my hope that Pell’s convictions will show those who choose to engage in acts of sexual violence that they will be held to account for their actions, regardless of their wealth, power, societal standing, or literal or figurative stature. But, most of all, I hope that implicit message sent by those who continue to support Pell is drowned out by the message from our justice system: if you have been harmed, you will be believed. Justice can be achieved, even against one of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church.
Christina Melrose is a Senior Clinician (Prevention and Education) at Gippsland Centre Against Sexual Assault
If you, or someone you know, has been impacted by sexual abuse, or the coverage of the Pell trial and appeal, help is available:
Lifeline 13 11 14 (24hrs, Australia wide)
Sexual Assault Crisis Line 1800 806 292 (24hrs, within Victoria)
1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732 (24hrs, Australia wide)
Gippsland Centre Against Sexual Assault is funded to provide support and advocacy for people in Gippsland who have been impacted by sexual assault. You can contact us on (03) 5134 3922, or find out more at www.gcasa.org.au