There will be much more to be said in the weeks and months ahead about the rejection of Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of his conviction for “historic sexual abuse,” by the 2-1 vote of a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court of Victoria. For the moment, this astonishing, indeed incomprehensible, decision calls into the gravest doubt the quality of justice in Australia—and the possibility of any Catholic cleric charged with sexual abuse to receive a fair trial or a fair consideration of the probity of his trial.

In the live-streamed appellate court proceedings on the morning of August 21 (Melbourne time), Victoria Supreme Court chief justice Anne Ferguson, reading the decision, made persistent reference to “the whole of the evidence.” But there has never been any “evidence” that Cardinal Pell did what he was alleged to have done. There was only the word of the complainant, and there was absolutely no corroboration of his charges—which, in the months since the cardinal’s trials, have been shown to be alarmingly similar to a fake set of charges leveled against a priest in a story published years ago in Rolling Stone. 

Judge Ferguson also referred to the “uncertain memory” of the “opportunity witnesses” who testified on the cardinal’s behalf, to the effect that the acts of sexual abuse alleged to have been committed simply could not have happened given the circumstances of a cathedral full of people, the brief time frame of the alleged acts, and the cardinal’s vesture. But what, one must ask, about the potentially “uncertain” memory of the complainant? Why is it simply assumed, on the basis of his videotaped testimony, that the complainant has a clear memory of what he alleged to have happened—especially when the entire scenario of the alleged abuse is implausible in the extreme?

– from an Aug. 21 op-ed by George Weigel in First Things