The High Court decision in the matter of Cardinal George Pell has provided some much needed relief from COVID-19 related news.
The immediate response from the media and general public was that of shock and incredulity towards the justice system. It would seem that such attitude is based, no doubt, on the foundation of general disgust in relation to child related sexual offences, especially those involving the Catholic Clergy.
However, it is important to remember that the foundation of the criminal justice system is not based on public opinions, morals, nor an overriding attitude to a particular class of offending. Each case is to be determined on its facts and the burden of proof, of beyond reasonable doubt, needs to be established. To interfere with that burden would undermine the entire system and those involved in it. Ultimately, it is important to separate general public opinion from determining the individual facts of a case.
The High Court determined that having regard to the “opportunity witnesses” there remained a possibility that the offending had not taken place, and consequently, there should be doubt as to Pell’s guilt.
Of important note, and often overlooked, the evidence of the “opportunity witnesses” was unchallenged and inconsistent to the complainants account.
The court held:
“…on the assumption that the jury had assessed the complainant’s evidence as thoroughly credible and reliable, the evidence of the opportunity witnesses nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to the applicant’s guilt in relation to the offences involved in both alleged incidents.”
Instead of it being considered a dark day for the justice system, it is quite the opposite. It demonstrates that we have a system that ultimately ensures our fundamental right of innocence until proven guilty is adhered to, and importantly, that the “possibility that an innocent person has been convicted…” has been avoided.