Opinion: Pell acquittal still affecting mental health of Australians experiencing complex trauma
Its final episode additionally featured the first-person accounts of two victims raising new allegations against Cardinal Pell. The other week Pell, arguably one of the most divisive Church leaders in Australia, had all his convictions for the sexual abuse of two choirboys at St. Patricks Cathedral quashed by the High Court.
The decision, unanimously reached, was on the basis that the appeal court failed to take proper account of evidence that cast doubt on his guilt.
These charges were not the first against George Pell.
In 2002 Pell was stood aside while a child sexual abuse allegation was investigated. It was not proven. Nor was it dismissed out of hand. It is pertinent to note that George Pell has no less than eight civil cases related to alleged offending pending as well.
For now, Pell has his freedom. Yet it needs to be noted that many abuse victims have never been free. They have spent a life trapped in the horror of the crimes which decimated their lives. Many survivors live a life sentence.
This finding has devastated survivors and those who stand by them. It has left many reeling with fury, disgust, distress and an overwhelming cacophony of feelings. For many it has triggered feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, reigniting memories of past abuse and of their own struggles to be listened to, heard and believed. In this case, the surviving victim (the other victim having died of a heroin overdose, a not uncommon but devastating possible outcome of child sexual abuse) was seemingly believed.
And yet, the supporting evidence presented by the defence meant that the High Court concluded that guilt could not be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. The reality is that for a secret crime such a child sexual abuse, a crime which occurs in the shadows, for which there are usually no witnesses, the onus of proof is inherently challenging.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard extensive evidence over five years of alleged and established findings of child sexual abuse crimes, considered impossible. And yet victim after victim appeared before its public hearings, some representing victims who hadn’t made it, some struggling fundamentally day-to-day.
They presented testimony after testimony of the ‘unbelievable’ truths, which we as a society had denied, minimised, dismissed and ignored over time. The Royal Commission’s recommendation for the National Redress Scheme which followed was predicated on a new onus of proof – that of reasonable likelihood.
It is notable that George Pell rose right through the ranks of the Church, and was appointed the Vatican ‘treasurer’ for 5 years until 2019 and was in fact a member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers until October 2018. The dissonance between his high regard and repeated elevation within the Church and his public demeanour have been frequently noted.
This spans his formulation of the legalistic Melbourne Response, which reportedly for many victims was unjust and retraumatising, to his seemingly dismissive demeanour and comments.
His arguably detached manner was repeatedly on display during a number of public hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the ‘Betrayal of Trust’ Victorian Child Abuse Inquiry.
His frequent memory lapses and denials have been questioned. In 2016 in front of the Royal Commission Cardinal Pell referred to now laicised priest Gerard Ridsdale’s offending as a “sad story” which was “not of much interest” to him.
Risdale, one of Australia’s most notorious paedophile priests from Ballarat, also featured on Revelation. Some of the findings from two reports of the Royal Commission in relation to George Pell have been subject to heavy redactions. The call for these to be released redaction-free is under consideration, but arguably a matter of urgent public interest.
George Pell has walked free, but this is far from finished. What is important here is the wellbeing of victims everywhere, as we together try and make sense of what has happened. It is a time for us all to join together and reach out to one another in support and solidarity. To know that even though we may not feel strong and resilient now, that we are united and connected and know our own truths, beyond doubt.