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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Cardinal Pell charged with serious sex offences

According to media reports (such as this one), Cardinal George Pell has been charged today with serious sexual crimes dating back to his time as a relatively young priest in Ballarat during the 1970s.

I don't know Pell at all and have never had any contact with him. I doubt that I am even remotely on his radar. I don't count him as in any sense a personal enemy, but his deeply reactionary moral views make him the opposite of everything I stand for. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am, for example, an unremitting supporter of gay rights and a trenchant opponent of laws that criminalize abortion. That is quite the opposite position to Pell's.

Furthermore, I have sometimes been a ferocious critic of Pell himself and of the Catholic Church. Indeed, as far as I know I was the first person to popularize the term "cult of misery" as a harsh term for the Church (see the final sentences of the link just provided, and search for the words on this blog). This was in reference to what I view as Roman Catholicism's joylessness, deeply anti-sex attitudes, and weird fetish about suffering. For a time, that term gained considerable currency in some circles.

(To be sure, few phrases are ever truly original. I don't know where I got "cult of misery" from or whether it ... well ... just came to me. Someone probably did use it in that way before me, but if so I don't know who. The point is not that I was especially inventive but that I at least helped to promote this term during the height of New Atheist activism around a decade ago.)

These days, I might use slightly more temperate language and have slightly different priorities - but I have not really changed my views about the Church or its moral values.

I have also been a scathing critic of the Church's atrocious mismanagement of sexual abuse cases involving children, and it seems clear enough that Pell was implicated in some of this.

What is not clear is whether he ever engaged directly in sexual abuse of children. While it might help my agenda in some ways if this were so, I don't know about that one way or the other. I don't claim that anything he has done that I have criticized in the past is evidence for that kind of extreme abusive conduct.

To be honest, I was (very slightly) surprised that the Victorian police took the step of charging Pell with these historical crimes dating from the 1970s. That suggests to me that the police might have evidence that is stronger than anything made known to the public so far. At the same time, I am not willing to draw inferences of guilt in respect of such serious crimes from what is currently on the public record. At the least, I'd want to see the evidence presented in open court where it could be tested fully for its cogency.

Many people do draw inferences of guilt before legal verdicts are reached - and sometimes even after acquittals. Part of the virtue of the criminal court system is, indeed, to permit public scrutiny of the courts and their operation. I see this as primarily to protect accused persons from being tried in kangaroo courts - subjected to unfair processes - but we might also scrutinize trials if they seem to function too leniently toward highly privileged individuals. At the end of the day, we might have reservations about any outcome, whether it is a conviction or an acquittal.

That acknowledged, I think we should normally be very slow to rush to judgment, especially when a trial is pending and neither side has produced its evidence or tested the evidence relied on by the opposing side. Sometimes what seems like a compelling case for the prosecution collapses when witnesses are cross-examined, other evidence is scrutinized, and evidence tending to suggest innocence is provided to the court. As events unfold, we should also, I think, be deferential to the courts (including, where relevant, the appeal courts) with matters involving grave criminal accusations. That is, we should not lightly conclude that the courts made factual errors on the admissible evidence before them.

All too often, we form views based on experiences of our own that seem analogous (and which we may be distorting in our memories in any event), on our positive or negative feelings about accused people, and on the basis of other evidence that tends to prejudice our judgment without being logically probative. All of this is worth consciously resisting: after all, any of us could find ourselves accused of grave crimes at some point, and we'd hope that the evidence against us would be subjected to rigorous scrutiny before the public assumed our guilt.

Given my very severe, and sometimes even mocking, criticism of Pell in the past, I thought it worthwhile to make a statement on where I stand with this. I haven't softened in my substantive criticism of Pell, or the Catholic Church; ultimately, however, that is not the point. From a legal perspective, Pell is entitled to the presumption of innocence. From a broader social perspective, we should not rush to judgment. Let's at least wait until the legal proceedings are over. If, at that stage, we have serious reservations about the outcome, given the evidence presented, the courts are not beyond criticism. But for now, the best thing to wish for is a fair, thorough, and reasonably expeditious trial.

There is some vagueness about the exact offences charged, but they do sound very serious. They must now be examined through the solemn and rigorous processes of the criminal courts.

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