The Law Council of Australia says it hopes the quashing of Cardinal George Pell’s abuse convictions in the High Court does not deter victims of sexual abuse from coming forward.
It also says that rather than highlight issues with the legal system – which some have suggested – the judgment instead demonstrates a fully-functioning legal system.
RNZ News reports that Cardinal Pell, the former Vatican treasurer, had been the most senior Catholic figure to be jailed for child sexual abuse crimes.
In 2018, a jury found he abused two boys in Melbourne in the 1990s.
But the High Court of Australia quashed that verdict on Tuesday, meaning the cardinal will immediately be released from a six-year jail sentence.
“The Law Council respects the determination of the High Court in the matter of Pell v The Queen,” says Law Council of Australia President, Pauline Wright.
“The High Court is the ultimate decision-maker within our judicial system in Australia and its job is to impartially scrutinise decisions made in lower courts to determine whether the law has been properly applied.
“In criminal trials, the prosecution bears the burden of proof and must prove every element of their case to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. While the High Court proceeded on the basis that the jury had found the complainant to be a credible and reliable witness and did not need to make an adverse or different finding about the complainant's credibility, the decisive issue in the appeal was the existence and treatment of other evidence that was inconsistent with the complainant’s account of the incidents, and which was largely unchallenged by the Crown at trial,” Ms Wright says.
“The onus was on the prosecution to negate the possibility that the complainant’s account was not correct beyond reasonable doubt, which it could not do in the face of the other evidence. In other words, although the testimony of the complainant was capable of being considered truthful and reliable when taken by itself, there was other contradictory evidence before the court that was unchallenged by the Crown and which therefore also had to be considered truthful and reliable. When considered together, a reasonable doubt must have arisen as to which account was correct.
“Therefore, it was the unanimous decision of the High Court that the totality of the evidence ought to have caused a jury, acting rationally, to entertain a reasonable doubt as to essential elements of the prosecution case, thus leading to the High Court quashing both convictions and entered acquittals.
“There has been much criticism and commentary within the media as whether this decision highlights problems in legal system.
“On the contrary, nothing in the Pell case has overturned or diminished the crucial and primary responsibility of juries, not judges, to determine whether an accused person is guilty of an offence.
“Rather, the appeal has illustrated that there may be exceptional cases in which it appears that a jury has fallen into error because it has reached a verdict that was not reasonably open on the evidence. If a convicted person lodges an appeal against their conviction on that basis, it is the responsibility of the appellate court to apply a technical legal test to determine whether the verdict was ‘unsafe’. That is what the High Court did in this case.
“It is our hope that the decision will not deter victims of sexual abuse from coming forward to tell their stories and seek justice for past wrongs they have suffered.”