Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Guilty or not guilty?

I have followed the story of the trials of Cardinal Pell (as best one can, given the information management strategies in place for much of the time); not least because I have met him, and have walked the pilgrimage to Chartres with his (then) personal secretary, Fr Mark Withoos (now Brother Augustine Mary, OSB). So I am not an impartial observer: I have personal reasons to believe him innocent. But that is not what I want to write about here (and for good accounts of why the verdict against him is suspect, see here and here)

But I am blogging because I have something to say which is from a fairly unusual perspective: I have been on the jury of a rape trial.

I need to proceed with some caution, as it is an offence to talk about anything said in the Jury room, even once a trial is over.

Therefore I will give no clues about the location or date of the trial, nor any indication of any remarks made by any individual juror. Instead I will recount my own impressions, feelings and reactions to the experience, in the hope that they will shed some light.

The first thing to say is that I found the experience harrowing. Listening to the woman in the case describe the years of controlling behaviour (another charge) and multiple counts of rape and sexual abuse that she was accusing the defendant of perpetrating, was terrible. I quickly found myself thinking, imagine if this was one of my daughters - and feeling extremely angry as well as profoundly upset.

But listening to the defendant, conscious of the assumption of innocence as the foundation of our system of justice, I consciously tried to imagine that it was my son in the box, accused of all these foul deeds, so as to listen without the previous anger distorting my judgement.

In the event, the evidence was confused and confusing. Both witnesses had mental health issues; both contradicted themselves, let alone each other. Their lives were chaotic, and they both demonstrably lied on more than one occasion.

That made it extremely difficult to reach a clear view as to what had happened.

But in the Jury room there were two people who had swallowed the 'Believe the victim' narrative so strongly that they found a guilty vote on each charge to be easy. The rest of us were less convinced.  Indeed, it was hard to believe the victim when she gave contradictory accounts of the same event: which version should we believe?

But the amount of pressure I felt to conform to their view was substantial. It was moral cowardice not to convict this evil man, in the eyes of some.

After the trial (and outside the Jury room, so I can mention it) one of the other Jurors thanked me for the role I had taken in reminding people of the standard of proof required by law: beyond reasonable doubt, and for standing up to those trying to exert moral suasion. Without me, she said, she and others might have felt obliged to fall in with their view.

In the event, we could agree no verdict on the rape and abuse charges. 

Given the sustained campaign against the Catholic Church in general, and Cardinal Pell in particular, in Australia, along with public pronouncements from the highest quarters about believing victims, in the run-up to his trial, it seems to me quite likely that the Jury room in that case was a much more pressurised environment.

I believe a serious miscarriage of justice has taken place, and I think I have some insight into at least one of the contributory factors.


I am delighted, of course, that the High Court judges unanimously reached the same conclusion: that a serious miscarriage of justice had taken place, and that the only possible verdict in the case, given the evidence, was Not Guilty.