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George Pell: questions wise and foolish

By Alfred Zarb - posted Tuesday, 19 March 2019

In his far-sighted Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare admonished that fools are considered wise only when they remain silent. That is almost certainly true for most of us humans most of the time.

However, there are times when foolish speaking may be wiser, or at least more helpful, than not saying anything. The conviction of George Pell is a case in point. Finding a high profile Cardinal guilty of sexual abuse of minors affects Church and society on many levels. It is no surprise that it has generated saturation media coverage in Australia and overseas. A sad consequence is that such coverage, with constant repetition of graphic details, may itself intensify the hurt of all victims of all abuse. Nonetheless, serious commentary and popular opinion will continue, exploring and probing. Pell has been and remains a godsend for both investigative and speculative journalism, let alone social media and conspiracy theorists.

This case is now in a rather unique circumstance because, in an almost unparalleled twist of fate, the guilt or innocence of Cardinal Pell has been overtaken by the very nature of his conviction. Questions arise as to whether all the necessary tenets for justice and fairness have been observed to the full, particularly:

  • That a person is innocent until actually proven otherwise.
  • That a person can be found guilty only beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • That it is better for ten guilty to go free than for one innocent to be convicted.
  • That justice must not only be done, but it must also be seen to be done.

Whatever its faults, real or perceived, Australia's justice system is generally transparent, reliable and fair. Yet it is this very integrity of our judicial process that creates genuine scope for honest questioning of what has taken place in this particular instance. Such interrogations, pro or con, will continue well beyond the hearing of Pell's appeal against his conviction, irrespective of the outcome. Without in any way impugning Jury or Judge, let alone presuming the decision of the Court of Appeal, the spectre of Lindy Chamberlain already hovers about like Banquo's floating head in Macbeth.

State of Victoria legislation mandates trial by jury. It also requires appropriate secrecy protocols for the benefit of victims of sexual abuse proceeding to trial, during the trial, and after the trial. But because neither media nor public can be directly privy to the totality of in camera evidence given by the accuser, including under cross-examination, it is inevitable that problems of claim and counter-claim will arise. It is not merely a matter of whether one agrees or disagrees with a Jury's verdict. It is, fundamentally, a real question of how the second Jury arrived at its unanimous verdict, especially when the defendant still insists strongly on his innocence.

Second-guessing a Public Prosecutor, a Jury, a Judge, or an Appellate Court is always fraught with obvious risk. It is not simply a case of a fool rushing in where an angel fears to tread. There may be unintended consequences. Consequently, asking questions without providing potential answers is the only way to proceed. Immediate questions include:

  • What evidence led the Public Prosecutor to determine prior to laying of charges that a Jury conviction was likely?
  • If, as is widely claimed, the First Trial Jury got hung 10-2 in Pell's favour, what made the Second Trial Jury convict unanimously given that no substantive additional material was admitted, and that no evidence was given in person?
  • Is it safe for a Jury to convict without proper corroboration of claims, and without independent forensic evidence?
  • Is it safe for a Jury to convict, beyond a reasonable doubt as distinct from probable, solely on the sentiment or belief that the accuser was more credible than the accused?
  • Is it psychosexually possible for a highly intelligent middle-aged man of acknowledged good standing and lifelong commitment to high moral standards to suddenly cease an opportunistic moment and break those very same standards?
  • Is it really tenable that a controversial man on constant display and under prolonged public and media scrutiny for decades can successfully cover up his own sexual abuse of minors?

It is not unreasonable for an average person, not necessarily a Pell supporter, to at least wonder about the fairness of this conviction. This is not in the least disrespectful of the Jury or the Court, nor, more importantly, of the damaged victims of abuse. Quite the contrary. After all, fairness is a very substantive matter, involving the universal and foundational principle of aequum et bonum. It must never be an illusion. As widely respected legal scholar Sir Julius Stone reminded us years ago, fairness is one of the prescribed absolutes of any justice system, especially so in the Anglophone world.


Indisputably, George Pell has been very good copy for several decades, especially for those who do not like him or his style, both inside and outside the Church. That to all intents and purposes he 'represents' the Catholic Church, with its many misunderstood aspects and beliefs, greatly enhances his value to the secular media.

As we wait for the hearing of his appeal, Pell's story has already taken on Shakespearean dimensions. There is comedy, there is drama, and there is tragedy.

Are we in a fool's paradise? An old Italian saying advised that a fool can ask more questions in one hour than a wise man can answer in seven years. But a much older Greek maxim contended that a fool may sometimes tell the truth when others will not. One hopes that foolishness is the beginning of wisdom.

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About the Author

Alfred P Zarb is an independent writer and researcher based in the Blue Mountains of NSW. He is a member of ISAA, with special interests in Ethics and Society.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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