In summary

  • Opinion piece for The Australian by Dean of Swinburne Law School, Professor Mirko Bagaric

No legal case since Lindy Chamberlain 40 years ago has polarised the community and legal experts or generated more publicity than that of Cardinal George Pell, who was acquitted earlier this year. Incredibly, months after the High Court decision, the case may have another twist.

A senior Catholic cardinal, ­Giovanni Angelo Becciu, is reported in Italy to have transferred $1.1m of Vatican funds to an unnamed account in Australia to unfavourably influence the case against Pell. Becciu reportedly took issue with Pell’s decision in 2016 to arrange for an external audit of Vatican finances. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Robert Richter QC, Pell’s trial lawyer, has noted that the allegations are serious and need to be investigated by an independent body which has the power to trace financial transactions.

At the same time, lawyers for Pell have denied that the money was sent to them to pay for the cardinal’s legal fees.

On the face of it, the allegations of trying to influence witnesses are extreme, verging on fanciful. But they must still be fully investigated. The prosecution of Pell was far removed from the orthodox criminal investigation and trial process.

Giovanni Angelo Becciu has allegedly transferred Vatican funds to unfavourably influence the case against Pell.

There are many odd aspects associated with it, starting with the unprecedented actions of Victoria Police in establishing a task force targeting Pell before any allegations had been made against him. Police even actively advertised for victims.

When the matter went to court, Pell was harassed by baying mobs yelling for his imprisonment. Some of the many shortcomings of the jury process (the only decision-making body in ­society that doesn’t need to give reasons for its conclusions, and is in fact prohibited from doing so) were laid bare when Pell was convicted of child sexual offences. These convictions occurred under the cover of legal darkness when the entire country was precluded from being made aware that the trial was even taking place.

The convictions were upheld in a split decision by the Victorian Court of Appeal, when the most eminent criminal law jurist in the country, Justice Mark Weinberg, dissented on the basis that the “complainant’s allegations against the applicant were, to one degree or another, implausible”. By contrast, rather than focusing on reasons why the accusations against Pell were objectively implausible, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and VCA president Justice Chris Maxwell were swayed by the way in which the complainant presented his evidence. They stated: “Both the content of what [the complainant] said and the way in which he said it — including the language he used — appeared to us to be entirely authentic.”

Cardinal George Pell leaving the County Court of Victoria court in Melbourne.

The High Court justices — all of them, seven to zero — stated that it was not reasonable to find that Pell had the opportunity to commit the alleged offences given “his practice of greeting congregants on or near the cathedral steps after Sunday solemn mass”.

It was not lost on the court that the unbroken practices of Pell following Sunday mass meant that it was improbable that he had the opportunity to commit the alleged offences.

And now, as with the Chamberlain case decades ago, just when we thought this legal episode had run its course, it takes a spectacular new turn, this time with extraordinary new claims. Rarely are such conspiracy theories true and seldom do they need to be pursued. But the Pell prosecution is anything but regular.

One of the most telling aspects of it is that it occurred in Victoria. The state has the most closed and secretive system of justice in the country — there are more suppression orders in Victoria than the rest of the Australia combined. It is the only jurisdiction in the developed world where police corrupted a lawyer to become an informer against her clients. Meanwhile, the enforcement of the pandemic lockdown laws suggests an unhappily close relationship between the police and government.

There is a transparency and integrity deficit in Victoria. Richter is right to call for an investigation — an independent one — into the Vatican money allegations.

Such issues of legal propriety arising in Victoria demand very high levels of scrutiny.

This article was republished with permission from The Australian. Read the original article.

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