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Jane Caro: What Faith Can We Have In Our Justice System If A Series Of Judges Can’t Agree?

About the only thing that has been able to knock this bloody virus off the front pages, is the news that the convictions of Cardinal George Pell have been quashed.

For many, this is shattering. It is devastating for all survivors of child sexual abuse, but it is particularly distressing for those who experienced it at the hands of Catholic clergy.

One of the great fears of those who are sexually abused is that they will not be believed. They fear they will be accused of lying, or almost worse, of having done something that caused their own abuse. Our centuries old tendency to blame the victim is a very effective silencer. The ancient, dark shame of the vulnerable has created too many secrets for too long.

For survivors to come forward and tell anyone what has happened to them is a profound act of courage.

To do so when it has occurred at the hands of a person your religious community believes is the next thing to God in his holiness and authority, almost unimaginable. To front the police, the courts and rigorous cross-examination in the hope of bringing that person to justice and, most importantly, so prevent them ever doing it to anyone else, is a commitment to truth and justice that takes my breath away.

In my role as a social commentator, I have made it a rule not to comment on the results of court cases. This is because I have great faith in our justice system and believe that -- as inevitably imperfect as everything created by human beings is -- it is one of the best things we’ve ever come up with.

I also refuse to comment because I was not in the court room, I did not hear the evidence and I am not legally trained. I believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty. I will not, therefore, be commenting on Pell’s guilt or innocence, except to say he was found guilty by a jury and that judgement was upheld by the Court of Appeal. He has now had his conviction quashed by the High Court because they found that the evidence presented did not reach the standard required for beyond reasonable doubt.

Cardinal George Pell attends court for sentencing in Melbourne in February 2019. (Image: Getty)

It is this legal standard of ‘reasonable doubt’ that is such a problem when it comes to trying cases of sexual assault or abuse. It is the nature of such crimes that they usually occur -- not just in private -- but in secret, for perfectly obvious reasons. It’s almost always ‘he said v she said’ or ‘he said v he said’.

No doubt the Pell decision will make many who have suffered and many who have fought alongside them feel a sense of hopelessness and I completely understand that. So much courage, so much pain for what today must feel like so little result. Respectfully, however, while I understand the reaction, I don’t agree that the efforts have been wasted. Not even for Witness J who has risked so much.

Every survivor who has spoken up, whether in court, at the Royal Commission, to a journalist, online via the #MeToo campaign or to a counsellor, copper or lawyer has made a huge and unchangeable difference.

Silence makes the world safer for those who would use their power and position to abuse the vulnerable. Speaking up, despite today’s High Court ruling, makes the world safer for those who are at risk of being abused. Every single survivor who has gathered up their courage and spoken about what has happened to them has made the world a safer place for children and others who are vulnerable. In fact, I would argue the children of today are now safer than any other generation of children in the history of the world.

For that we should thank everyone who has spoken up -- despite all the seemingly insurmountable hurdles -- from the very bottom of our hearts.