The view from Billinudgel

George Pell’s supporters seek to canonise him, but he will never return to his former prominence

George Pell departs the Carmelite Monastery in Kew, Melbourne. © James Ross / AAP Images

Cardinal George Pell (we must resume his proper title now) is out of prison and is seeking asylum at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Sydney. But his real protectors are the loyalists who never believed he was guilty, and are now running a fierce campaign effectively asking for his immediate canonisation.

True, it is unusual for saints to be proclaimed before their death – unprecedented, even. But there are unprecedented events unfolding at present, so perhaps it’s worth a go. Or, if canonisation is too big a stretch, we can always fall back on holy martyrdom, which is the line taken by the faithful choristers of The Australian, devoting pages each day to explain to parishioners that their man was the victim of relentless persecution from the police, the Victorian government, the ABC, most of the non-Murdoch media, even many of the gullible public – just about everyone, really.

His Eminence was of course clearly innocent, the target of a monstrous injustice. Except that he wasn’t. The High Court found that he should be acquitted, but there was no suggestion that he was denied fair process or that the system itself had failed. It went just as it is meant to: charge correctly laid, trial held as normal, judge’s summary impeccable, unanimous jury verdict announced.

Previously in the Court of Appeal, a majority upheld the jury verdict. The High Court then unanimously agreed that there was a reasonable doubt involved and thus there was a significant possibility of Pell’s innocence – in other words, he deserved the benefit of the doubt under the rules and under the overriding principle of the presumption of innocence. All present and correct – no injustice there, except, perhaps, the obsessive secrecy with which the initial proceedings were cloaked. Tough on Pell, of course: he did nearly 15 months, although hardly in the most onerous conditions. But the system got him out, and his supporters can now pronounce him innocent. He received the kind of justice that lesser beings simply cannot afford.

But back in the cloisters of The Australian there was never any doubt, not before, during or after. Pell was without fault or sin, he could not have done it simply because – well, because he was George Pell. A prince of the Holy Mother Church, third in rank at the Vatican, Australia’s most senior and celebrated Catholic – and all those who doubted were one-eyed bigoted sectarians, totally unlike themselves, the impartial observers interested only in the truth.

And not only must he be publicly vindicated (a national apology will only be the first step), he must also be recompensed. Punitive damages are in order, perhaps even on the scale of the donations he received to fund his fantastically expensive legal team. And they may be needed, with reports of another criminal case in the pipeline and the likelihood of civil litigation from disappointed victims. It is not over yet.

But he will never return to his former prominence; the Pope may well be pleased at his acquittal but asking him back to the inner circle is another matter altogether. Pell will be tactfully thrust into the shadows as far as possible – which in his case will not be easy.

There will be plenty more fulsome interviews in which to vent his displeasure. Plenty of time to rail about injustice, and gently wreak revenge. An eye for an eye – and forget turning the other cheek.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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