What did the High Court decide in the Pell case? And what happens now?


Ben Mathews, Queensland University of Technology

Two judges in the High Court of Australia this morning referred Cardinal George Pell’s application for special leave to appeal his convictions to a full bench of the High Court.

While not a full grant of special leave, this is favourable to Pell, as dismissing the application would have finalised the case and his convictions.

When the High Court hears the case in coming months, it can reject or grant the special leave application. If granted, it can then allow or dismiss the appeal.

The case is exceptionally complex and the final outcome is difficult to predict. Allowing leave to appeal does not guarantee the appeal will succeed. Here is what might happen next.

What happened with the convictions?

In December 2018, a jury unanimously found Pell guilty of five sexual offences against two 13-year-old choirboys, committed when he was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996-97. The offences were one count of sexual penetration of a child aged under 16 through forced oral sex, and four counts of an indecent act with or in the presence of a child aged under 16. He was sentenced to six years’ prison with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.

What happened with the failed appeal?

In August 2019, Victoria’s Court of Appeal dismissed Pell’s appeal against these convictions by a 2:1 majority decision. The background is summarised elsewhere. The key issue was whether the verdicts were “unreasonable” or could not be supported on the evidence. The question was whether, given the evidence, it was “open to the jury” to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt the accused was guilty.

It is not enough to overturn a guilty verdict if the court merely finds a jury “might have” had a reasonable doubt. Rather, the court must find that, on its assessment of the evidence, it was not open to the jury to have been satisfied of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. So the evidence must have “obliged” the jury to reach a not guilty verdict. Because of the jury’s role as tribunal of fact, setting aside a guilty verdict is “a serious step” (see the case M v R).

The majority judges, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell, concluded the guilty verdicts were open to the jury. They did not have a doubt about the complainant’s truthfulness or the cardinal’s guilt. They made crucial findings after careful and cogent reasoning, considering each aspect of the defence case.




Read more:
George Pell has lost his appeal. What did the court decide and what happens now?


First, the complainant was credible and reliable. His account was consistent and detailed. His recalled detail of the sacristy layout enhanced his credibility and independently confirmed his account, as it was not normally used by the archbishop.

Second, the majority judges evaluated each defence claim individually and collectively. They rejected the claim that the “opportunity” testimony (defence witnesses’ statements about where they, Pell and the choirboys would likely have been at relevant times) made the guilty verdicts unreasonable. Essentially, this testimony was not deemed sufficiently strong to make the verdict unreasonable or “not open”. Its effect was “of uncertainty and imprecision”. There was evidence showing “a realistic opportunity” for the offending.

The dissenting judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, gave extensive reasons. On his interpretation of the “opportunity” testimony – including statements by two witnesses about customarily being with Pell at relevant times – there was a “reasonable possibility” of an effective alibi for the first four offences. Weinberg himself had “a genuine doubt” about Pell’s guilt, thought there was a “significant possibility” the offences had not been committed, and inferred the jury ought to have had this doubt.

The application for special leave to appeal to the High Court

The High Court does not lightly give leave to appeal. It can only grant leave if:

  • the proceedings involve a question of legal principle; or

  • the interests of the administration of justice (generally, or here) require consideration of the earlier judgment.

Pell’s team made two arguments, relying on the dissenting judgment. First, they argued the majority’s approach to the “open to the jury” test was wrong, effectively requiring the applicant to exclude any possibility of the offending to have occurred, which reversed the onus and standard of proof. They also argued the majority’s belief in the complainant was not enough to overcome doubts raised by the opportunity testimony, and the alibi evidence had not been eliminated.

Second, they argued there was sufficient doubt about whether the offending was possible. This, they said, made the verdicts unreasonable, given the complainant’s account required them to be alone in the sacristy for five to six minutes. They argued that after mass and five to six minutes of “private prayer time” there was a “hive of activity” near the sacristy, and the majority incorrectly found it was reasonably open to the jury to find the offending happened during this period.

The director of public prosecutions argued there simply was no such error by the majority in applying the test, and the verdicts were not unreasonable.

In large part, the special leave application turned on the different approaches to whether the “opportunity evidence” was sufficiently strong to create enough doubt that it was “not open to the jury” to find Pell guilty beyond reasonable doubt.




Read more:
Victims of child sex abuse still face significant legal barriers suing churches – here’s why


What did the High Court say?

The transcript had not been released at the time of writing, but the two judges referred the application for special leave to hearing by a full bench (five or seven members) for argument as on an appeal. There, the full High Court can reject or grant the special leave application.

On one view, this is surprising. Applications arguing an unreasonable verdict in child sexual offence cases are typically dismissed (for example, O’Brien; in contrast GAX).

The High Court generally does not grant leave simply due to an alternative interpretation of the facts. The majority judgment in the appeal accurately stated the test. It applied the test by carefully analysing all the arguments and testimony individually and collectively, applying cogent reasoning in independently assessing the sufficiency and quality of the evidence. It weighed the evidence and expressed an independent conclusion about whether on all the evidence it was open to the jury to be satisfied of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

On the other hand, the two High Court judges may reasonably feel there are important issues of legal principle and justice to consider, and that such a significant case warrants full consideration at all levels by the entire court.

What happens now?

The full hearing of the special leave application will occur in 2020. If leave is then granted, the appeal will proceed. If the appeal succeeds, the court can grant a new trial, or reverse or modify the prior judgment.

However, if special leave is refused at the full hearing, or granted but the appeal fails, the convictions stand and no further appeal is possible.




Read more:
Triggering past trauma: how to take care of yourself if you’re affected by the Pell news


For the complainant and many survivors, especially of clergy abuse, this decision will be confronting. They will hopefully be able to draw on reserves of resilience, hope, and any support services if necessary, while awaiting the High Court’s final decision.The Conversation

Ben Mathews, Professor, School of Law, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

George Pell has lost his appeal. What did the court decide and what happens now?



George Pell’s appeal on child sexual abuse convictions has been dismissed.
AAP/Erik Anderson

Ben Mathews, Queensland University of Technology

Victoria’s Court of Appeal today delivered one of the most significant judgments in Australian legal history, dismissing Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against convictions for five child sex offences.

Given Pell’s seniority in the Catholic Church as a former Vatican treasurer, the case is also of worldwide significance. The appeal involved complex legal principles. Here is what you need to know to understand the judgment.

What happened before this appeal?

In December 2018, a jury unanimously found Pell guilty of five sexual offences against two 13-year-old boys, committed while Archbishop of Melbourne. As detailed in the sentencing remarks of County Court Chief Judge Kidd in March 2019, Pell was found guilty of one count of sexual penetration of a child aged under 16 through forced oral sex, and four counts of an indecent act with or in the presence of a child aged under 16.

The first offences were committed in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral after mass in December 1996. The final offence was committed against one of the boys around one month later. Both victims were choirboys and recipients of choral scholarships at an elite school.




Read more:
We knew George Pell was guilty of child sex abuse. Why couldn’t we say it until now?


Pell was sentenced to six years’ prison with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.

In reaching a verdict, the jury relied on detailed evidence of one of the victims about what Pell said and did, and when and where it happened. The other victim began using heroin at age 14 and died of a heroin overdose in 2014, aged 31. This man’s death prompted the surviving victim, aged in his early 30s, to approach police in 2015.

Is it normal for survivors of child sexual abuse to delay disclosure?

Yes. Survivors often disclose only after a significant delay and are reluctant to tell legal authorities. Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that, for those in private interviews, 57% first disclosed as adults and it took an average of 31.9 years to disclose.

A 2013 study of 487 men whose mean age of onset of abuse was 10, found the mean age when first telling was 32.

Is it a problem that the prosecution relied on the complainant’s evidence?

No. Child sexual abuse typically is inflicted in secret, without other evidence, so prosecutions often depend heavily on complainant testimony. The law recognises this: evidence does not have to be corroborated, and the judge must not warn the jury it is dangerous to act on uncorroborated evidence.

Juries make judgments based on the complainant account’s credibility, consistency, detail and truthfulness, and responses and demeanour in cross-examination.

What did Pell argue in the appeal?

There were three grounds of appeal. Two were procedural or technical: the plea of not guilty was not made in the presence of the jury panel; and the defence was not permitted to play a “visual representation” of part of its argument in its closing address.

Essentially, both arguments claimed a “substantial miscarriage of justice”. The court unanimously rejected these arguments.

But the main argument was that the jury’s verdict was “unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence”. Pell’s appeal argued it was not open to the jury to be satisfied of guilt, beyond reasonable doubt, based solely on the word of the complainant.

It also argued that it was not possible for Pell to have been in the sacristy either at all, or by himself; it was not possible for the boys to have been in the sacristy unnoticed; and the robes he wore made it impossible to offend in the way claimed.

What was the Court of Appeal required to do when considering this argument?

The law is complex, and whether a verdict is “unreasonable” depends on legal technicalities, not intuitive instincts. Four legal principles need to be understood here.

First, and most important, there is a very high threshold for a court to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict for being unreasonable (see, for example, M or Baden-Clay). This is because, in Australian law, the jury is the constitutional tribunal of fact responsible for deciding guilt or innocence. A verdict will only be overturned in exceptional circumstances showing a clear miscarriage of justice.

Second, the test is whether, on the evidence, it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt the accused was guilty.

To win the appeal, the appellant must show the guilty verdict was not open to the jury. It is not sufficient for the court to find a jury might have had reasonable doubt. The evidence must mean no reasonable jury could have returned a guilty verdict; it must have “obliged” them to reach a not guilty verdict.

Third, the appeal court does not retry the case – again, because the jury is the tribunal of fact. The court must independently assess the evidence, but to determine whether the guilty verdict was open to the jury; not simply whether the court itself has a doubt.

Fourth, if a complainant is credible and reliable and the account is detailed, consistent and plausible, it is difficult for an appeal to succeed. On plausibility, courts have accepted that sexual offending can be brazen, influenced by the abuser’s arrogance, power and belief the child will not make a complaint.

What did the Court of Appeal say about this?

The judges rejected it by a majority of two to one. They found the guilty verdicts were reasonable, because they were open to the jury on the whole of the evidence.

The court said there was nothing about the evidence that meant the jury must have had reasonable doubt. It was not enough that one or more jurors might have had a doubt. Moreover, the court did not itself have such a doubt.

The complainant was found to be compelling, clearly not a liar or fantasist, and a witness of truth. He did not embellish the evidence or tailor it to the prosecution. He adequately explained things he could not remember and his explanations had a ring of truth.

What can happen now?

Pell can seek special leave to appeal to the High Court. If the High Court denies permission, the matter is finalised; if given, it will later deliver a final judgment.




Read more:
The Catholic Church is investigating George Pell’s case. What does that mean?


Save for a successful appeal in the High Court, Pope Francis will likely expel Pell from the priesthood. The family of the second survivor is suing him and or the church for civil damages, as may others. Pell will remain in jail.

It is exceptionally difficult for survivors of child sexual abuse to bring successful criminal complaints, especially against powerful offenders. This judgment may encourage other courageous survivors to make complaints.

Yet many systemic reforms are still required to better facilitate prosecutions of child sexual offences.The Conversation

Ben Mathews, Professor, School of Law, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Catholic Church is investigating George Pell’s case. What does that mean?


Ian Waters, University of Divinity

Cardinal George Pell was this week sentenced by a Victorian court to six years’ jail for sexually abusing two choirboys, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.

Although Pell was found guilty of the charges against him in December, he has remained a Cardinal in the Catholic Church. The Church previously said it would await the outcome of an appeal before taking action, but it has since confirmed that an investigation of Pell’s case will be conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

An American former cardinal was recently expelled from the priesthood by the Church following a canonical trial into claims of child sexual abuse. Here’s what it could look like if Pell was subject to a similar process.




Read more:
After Pell, the Catholic Church must undergo genuine reform


Canonical trials are governed by the rules of the Church

Most cases concerning the wrongdoing of Catholics are tried in secular courts. The decisions and punishments handed down by the courts are normally accepted by the Church as sufficient.

But the Church will conduct its own examination of cases where the church’s canon law requires punishment outside the competence of the courts of the land. That includes the excommunication of a member of the church, or the dismissal of a priest or bishop from the clerical state – often referred to as defrocking.

Tribunals to adjudicate matters that concern the Church’s own internal governance are principally governed by the rules and regulations of the Church, which are known as canon law (from the Greek etymology κανών or kanon, meaning a “rule”). These regulations are set out in the Church’s Code of Canon Law, which came into effect in 1983.

Since such trials are conducted because of the requirements of canon law, they are known as “canonical trials”.




Read more:
How an appeal could uphold or overturn George Pell’s conviction


Sexual abuse cases are handled by the Holy See

Catholic Church tribunals are normally held in the diocese of the parties to the case. The bishop of the diocese can judge cases for his diocese. But since bishops often have little or no in-depth knowledge of canon law, most cases in Catholic Church tribunals are handled by judges (clerics or laypersons) appointed by the bishop. The presiding judge is a priest known as the judicial vicar.

Some matters cannot be introduced at a diocesan tribunal, but are reserved for the various tribunals at the Holy See. This includes cases involving dioceses and bishops, and certain serious matters regarded as crimes in the Catholic Church. Examples of this would be matters of sacrilege (offences against the sacraments), and sexual offences by a cleric against a minor under the age of 18.

A college of judges try difficult cases

Usually a single judge presides over contentious and penal cases. But a college of three or five judges will normally try more complicated or difficult cases – especially if the prescribed penalty is an excommunication from the Church, the dismissal of a cleric, or if the case concerns the annulment of a marriage or an ordination.

Other officers of the tribunal include the promoter of justice, who is the prosecutor in penal cases. The tribunal also has notaries who swear in witnesses, and commit their testimony to writing.

Like any legal system, parties in a case have the right to appoint an advocate who can argue for them at the tribunal. If a person cannot afford an advocate, the tribunal can assign one to them free of charge.




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Triggering past trauma: how to take care of yourself if you’re affected by the Pell news


Defendants are presumed innocent

Catholic Church tribunals do not use the adversarial system used by the courts of the common law tradition. Rather, Catholic Church tribunals use the inquisitorial system law found in most European legal systems. That means the judges lead the investigation.

The standard of proof used by the Catholic Church tribunals is “moral certainty”. Certainty results from examination in good conscience of the available evidence. This isn’t the same as “absolute certainty”, but it’s more than mere probability. It is normally stricter than guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is usually held to be the absence of doubt based on reason and common sense.

As a general rule, the defendant has the presumption of innocence, which means the defendant will win by default unless a majority of the judges is convinced with moral certainty of the petitioner’s case.The Conversation

Ian Waters, Professor, Lecturer, Department of Moral Theology and Canon Law, University of Divinity

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How an appeal could uphold or overturn George Pell’s conviction


David Hamer, University of Sydney

A criminal trial often helps to provide finality for the accused, and closure for victims and society. But following this week’s news, George Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter QC, indicated Pell maintains his innocence and the legal team have already lodged an appeal. Richter said this would be pursued following Pell’s sentencing.

Pell’s conviction no longer appears final, but provisional. The Vatican initially said it would wait until the appeal outcome before launching its own investigation that could lead to the Cardinal being defrocked. But it has now been confirmed the investigation is starting regardless.

The Australian government, though, said it will only strip Pell of his Order of Australia honours if he loses the appeal. Meanwhile, the media and community are awash with confusion about the verdict that came in a retrial after the first trial concluded with a hung jury. It seems many people are holding their breath until the appeal is heard.

Defendants generally only get one appeal, though that one appeal may be taken further to the High Court. If Pell’s appeal is dismissed, he will require exceptional intervention from the Government, which is very rare.

So, what is an appeal, and what might it look like for someone with Pell’s profile and convictions?




Read more:
We knew George Pell was guilty of child sex abuse. Why couldn’t we say it until now?


How long would an appeal take?

The appeal process is fairly elaborate. It requires the Court of Appeal’s leave (or approval). If given, the defence and prosecution will make written submissions to the court. There is then a hearing, on the basis of which the court will make a decision, explain its reasoning, and make appropriate orders.

In this case, the court may dismiss the appeal, allow the appeal and order a retrial, or allow the appeal and order that Pell be acquitted. With a crowded list of cases, this entire procedure often takes more than a year. The Pell appeal may be relatively simple and decided more quickly.

Bail was revoked pending sentencing, anticipating a custodial sentence, and Pell will remain in custody until the appeal. If the appeal is upheld, the court may make a decision immediately following the hearing and publish its reasons subsequently.

Evidence at the trial

The trial did not involve a great deal of evidence. One of the alleged victims had made a report to police in 2015, claiming the assaults occurred after mass. The other alleged victim died of an accidental heroin overdose in 2014, apparently without reporting abuse.

Like many delayed sexual assault cases – almost 20 years in this case – there simply isn’t much evidence available. At Pell’s trial, there seemed to have been little more than the complainant’s allegations and Pell’s denials. Pell did not testify. Video of his denials to police were played to the jury.

The jury may have preferred to see how Pell coped with cross-examination. But he has the right to silence, and his failure to enter the witness box can’t be used against him.

A few other witnesses gave evidence about the masses delivered by Pell at St Patrick’s Cathedral, where the abuse allegedly took place. They supported the defence’s claims of the impossibility of the abuse taking place. Witnesses noted the then Archbishop Pell would have been accompanied at all times during the crowded events and would not have had the opportunity to commit the offences.

Other types of evidence often relied on by the prosecution in child sexual abuse trials did not feature in the Pell trial. The prosecution wasn’t able to present the complainant’s earlier reports of abuse. It seems he told no one prior to the police report.

The absence of earlier reports would not necessarily help the defence. Courts now recognise there are many reasons why victims of child sexual assault find it hard to talk. They feel confused and powerless, particularly where the offender is in a position of authority.




Read more:
Triggering past trauma: how to take care of yourself if you’re affected by the Pell news


Many child sexual assault prosecutions rely on evidence of other alleged victims to demonstrate the defendant’s propensity or tendency for child sexual abuse. Such evidence was potentially available in the Pell trial – other allegations had been made from his time in Ballarat in the 1970s.

However, this evidence was not admitted at trial. The two sets of allegations were kept entirely separate (and the trials split), perhaps to avoid the risk of jury prejudice. Pell’s Melbourne convictions (in the cathedral trial) were suppressed while the Ballarat charges (swimmers trial) were pending.

It was only when the prosecution dropped the Ballarat charges that the convictions on the Melbourne charges were made public.

What would the defence appeal?

Because only limited evidence was relied on at trial, relatively few legal issues were raised. This means the defence may find it difficult to identify any legal error as a ground for appeal. Richter has indicated the defence will claim there were errors regarding the constitution of the jury and the defence not being permitted to use a graphic.

If errors are found, the Court of Appeal would still dismiss the appeal if the errors seem too slight to have affected the outcome.

The other defence argument on appeal could be that the conviction was unreasonable. The jury simply got the facts wrong. Here the defence may face obstacles. The Court of Appeal is unlikely to entertain claims the jury was prejudiced and blamed Pell for the Church’s inadequate response to other paedophile priests.

Appeal courts generally trust a properly directed jury will comply with its duties. Appeal courts are also generally wary of overriding jury verdicts, particularly where they rest upon witness credibility, as in this case. Inconsistencies and gaps in a complainant’s account may be attributed to the delay rather than fabrication.

However, the Court of Appeal may feel well placed to assess the defence argument of impossibility. And in this case, unusually, the court may be able to assess the complainant’s demeanour, since the witness testified over video link.

This may be one of those exceptional cases where the court is prepared to say the jury got it wrong. But the court may also hesitate to override the jury – the community’s representatives – in a case that has opened such a rift in Australian society.




Read more:
After Pell, the Catholic Church must undergo genuine reform


The Conversation


David Hamer, Professor of Evidence Law, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

For whom the Pell tolls: what did we learn from George Pell’s royal commission appearance?


Timothy W. Jones, La Trobe University

Cardinal George Pell returned this week to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in relation to the Ballarat and Melbourne case studies.

Giving evidence over the course of four days, via video link from Rome, Pell modified slightly his previous public positions. But, fundamentally, he insisted that he knew little, and fulfilled his duties in relation to what he did know.

On several occasions, counsel assisting the royal commission suggested that Pell’s claims to be ignorant of child sex offending in various contexts was implausible. If everyone around Pell knew, how could he not have known?

The forms of denial

One of the most important lessons we have learnt from Pell’s appearance is the church was – and still is – in a state of denial. It is in denial about the harms of sexual abuse, and about the adequacy of its responses to allegations of abuse.

Being in denial is a curious thing. In denying something, you implicitly admit that there is something to deny.

The late sociologist Stanley Cohen examined this phenomenon in his last book. Cohen argued that we have myriad techniques of keeping disturbing knowledge at bay: there are many ways of not knowing.

The simplest is literal denial. We saw plenty of this from Pell. He repeatedly said that he never knew of allegations of abuse; that he never heard rumours of Gerald Ridsdale’s offending when they shared a presbytery in Ballarat.

Even less plausibly, Pell claimed that advisors and colleagues deliberately kept information from him. As journalist David Marr wrote, Pell was apparently:

… hoodwinked decades ago by an archbishop, a bishop, his colleagues and even the Catholic Education Office.

A more nuanced way of avoiding knowledge is interpretive denial. This involves keeping knowledge at a distance by accepting a fact but giving it a different interpretation.

So, when questioned about his time as a consultor in Ballarat, Pell insisted that paedophilia was never mentioned in discussions of why priests were being moved unexpectedly between parishes. Many of his fellow consultors knew that child sex offences had been committed, and “homosexuality” may have been mentioned as the reason for the priest’s removal.

But Pell, incuriously, chose not to see the possibility that the homosexual conduct may have been intergenerational. He asked no questions, and admitted:

It was a sad story and of not much interest to me.

The most disturbing form of denial on display in Pell’s four days of testimony, however, is implicatory denial: a refusal to see the legal and moral implications that follow from information.

Pell went to great lengths to explain that, in almost all cases, he did everything that was appropriate to his role at the time. He was repeatedly challenged by counsel assisting and the commissioner, Peter McClellan, that a priest might have a moral responsibility that exceeds the literal duties assigned to their role. But Pell rejected this proposition:

He has a moral responsibility to do … what is appropriate to his position.

Pell claimed that in his positions as priest, consultor and auxilliary bishop, he did all that was appropriate to his position. He simply reported any allegations that he thought were plausible to his superiors. That they neglected their duties was not his responsibility.

What chance of change?

Pell may be right that that the lion’s share of blame for the gross miscarriages of justice being examined by the royal commission should be laid at the feet of his dead and dying former superiors. But what is also emerging is graphic evidence of the dysfunctionality of Catholic governance on this issue.

As my research has shown, Roman Catholic canon law – ironically – has the oldest and most clearly articulated legal provisions for the prosecution of sexual offences against children. Yet the enactment of these provisions is entirely in the diocesan bishop’s hands.

A diocesan bishop has a fundamental conflict of interest in the discipline of clergy in their diocese. He is simultaneously responsible for the pastoral care of the priest and for their punishment. This contravenes a basic principle of natural law – that no-one should be a judge in their own case.

If church authorities had believed the children’s allegations, investigated them and kept records of those investigations, it is possible that offending priests could have been removed and disciplined. Instead, allegations were regarded as implausible, offending priests’ denials were believed, and records were destroyed.

And where allegations were too stark to be denied, the gravity of the offending was denied, and priests were sent for “counselling” and relocated.

It is evident that Archbishop Frank Little and Bishop Ronald Mulkearns neglected their responsibilities and even contravened canon law in their dealings with sexually offending clergy. But Pell’s claims to have fulfilled his moral responsibility in the face of this dysfunction ring hollow.

Pell chose to keep knowledge of his fellow priests’ offending at bay and allowed his superiors’ neglect and malpractice to continue. After the exposure of this legal dysfunction and moral cowardice, we can expect the royal commission’s recommendations will include changes to Roman Catholic governance and canon law.

The Conversation

Timothy W. Jones, Senior Lecturer in History, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Commercial current affairs and the case of Cardinal Pell


Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

An early finding of the ARC-funded research I and my QUT colleagues are doing on the Australian political media is the gradual withdrawal of free-to-air commercial TV from the current affairs space. If I may paraphrase an old Soviet joke – there’s as much current affairs in A Current Affair as there is truth in Pravda. Which is to say, not very much.

The reasons for this are clear. What we like to call “serious” current affairs – as opposed to the glorified product placement that comprises most of the program of that name on Channel Nine – rarely attracts the audience ratings that game shows, reality TV and other cheap and cheerful formats achieve.

In a hyper-competitive media marketplace, with more platforms and more choice for consumers than ever before, prime-time free-to-air is just too important to the shareholders’ bottom line to be given over to anything that won’t bring eyeballs to the screen.

This is a global trend. All over the world, commercial TV companies that used to make high-quality, high-impact current affairs shows such as the UK’s World In Action have abandoned the territory.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a dose of well-made reality TV as much as the next person, and can even see the point of the Kardashians. And by “quality” current affairs I don’t mean white middle-aged men in suits talking about interest rates – it can be about topics of undoubtedly human interest, dramatic and sensational, but hugely important to people’s everyday lives such as the epidemic of domestic violence, or corruption in FIFA.

Current affairs TV can and should address the personal and the private, the things that matter to us all. And there’s nothing wrong with making that material, along with the big picture issues of economic and politics, accessible to an audience not all of whom have uni degrees.

My point is that even this broad definition of current affairs is increasingly scarce in the free-to-air commercial landscape. We have the ABC, legally mandated to provide such content. And Sky News does an excellent job of providing real time news coverage of public affairs, although its audience is restricted to subscribers of Foxtel. And there are exceptions in the free-to-air space.

Andrew Bolt’s Sunday show on Channel Ten is an increasingly rare free-to-air political debate slot. And as long as you accept its provocatively controversialist style – which helps in the ratings competition, of course – it is very watchable.

And then there is 60 Minutes on Nine, which this week demonstrated what can still be done in the field of current affairs journalism by the commercial broadcasters. In 2002, Cardinal George Pell was interviewed by Richard Carlton on 60 Minutes about payments he had allegedly authorised to victims of paedophile priests, including the nephew of convicted abuser Gerald Ridsdale.

On YouTube, you can watch Pell obfuscate with cringe-inducing obviousness as the journalist pressed him on “the conspiracy of silence”. This was tough adversarial journalism of the very best kind, and very courageous for its time.

The most recent 60 Minutes update interviewed Peter Saunders, a Vatican-appointed commissioner who is investigating child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Saunders condemned Cardinal Pell in the harshest terms, to the extent that Pell is reported to be consulting his lawyers. A bevy of Australian archbishops subsequently wrote an open letter defending Pell, so damaging was the item perceived to have been.

Now, like most stories of this kind, there is more than one side to it, and there can be no rush to judgement until Pell has had his say before the Royal Commission. But this item, when taken alongside the statements of abuse survivors who have already testified in Ballarat and elsewhere, and other evidence such as the minutes of a Church meeting where the need to move Ridsdale to another diocese was discussed, has performed a real service to the victims of paedophile priests – a public service.

Commercial television has a long and honourable history of fearless current affairs journalism, in Australia and overseas. 60 Minutes’ work on Pell exemplifies that tradition. Long may it continue.

The Conversation

Brian McNair is Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.