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Pell case: Despite power and patriarchy, people demand to be heard

Written by: Louisa L. on 11 April 2020


An old friend was a taxi driver. One night on 1970s’ Cleveland Street, a major inner Sydney road, he saw a man bashing a woman as she lay in the gutter. Cars streamed by.

As he pulled up, another car did too. “It’s all right. She’s my wife,” the man said, and the other driver headed off, “Oh, ok.”

As a woman, as a communist I have tried to be brave in the face of abuse when I see it.

Violence and sexual abuse of women was and is commonplace, mostly behind closed doors.

In my youth, too often society turned its face away. Police were “sick of women claiming abuse, and retracting allegations before they went to court”. No mention that there was no refuge for the women, except the street.

Today many women still stay in violent and sexually abusive relationships rather than face homelessness and the likelihood losing their children.

Immensely powerful men

In a suburban Sydney shopping strip one afternoon, probably the late 80s, I saw a man towering over and threatening a woman who cowered between the edge of the footpath and a supermarket wall. People, perhaps unsure what to do, walked by.

Calling the man out, his fury turned on me. Suddenly all three of us were visible. Passers-by stepped up to protect us both. But a small voice, in faltering English, “He my husband.” And all help evaporated. I slowly stood, lost for what to do.

How powerless she must have felt. How he must have lied to intimidate her.

Courage? It comes from unity, from strong connections built in struggle, knowing you are not alone.

But I’m not alone in thinking of those small children, facing immensely powerful men, protected by the church and the capitalist state, threatened into silence, or not believed, their lives destroyed.

Gasping for air

Not many years back, traveling in Malaysia, I found myself in a rural spa resort. It was two hundred kilometres from the historical town the booking site purported it to be.

An older white man caught my eye. With him was a group of teenage Malaysian boys. They seemed to idolise him, hanging on his every word. After all, this was far from anywhere, and a huge treat. They were clearly not rich and privileged. Sound familiar?

In the pool, his behaviour changed. He roughly grabbed the boys and held them tight, hands where they should not have been, but only for a fleeting moment, so they thought it was accidental. He was so much stronger than them!

All was laughter, until he held one under the water for too long, while the others’ backs were turned.

Gasping for air, in fear and pain, which the others didn’t see, the young man fled his grasp. It was clear something more had happened. The young man kept his distance from then on.

Powerful systems

The man was so brazen! He knew I was watching and he didn’t care. Just like the paedophile priests, shifted from parish to parish, as hundreds of lives were laid to waste, he felt safe. Malaysia is not a place where foreign paedophiles usually congregate.

I remember rehearsing a confrontation with the man, to warn the boys. I tried to catch their eyes. I told one of the resort workers.

But all I was able to do was mouth to the young man he assaulted, “Very, very bad man.” He looked straight at me, and nodded his head, whispered, “Yes”. My nerve failed me. He needed the other boys to know too. Perhaps they wouldn’t have believed me. Perhaps I would have further endangered them. But hopefully my action encouraged the young man to make sure he was out of the man’s car before he was left alone with him. He was clearly the chosen target.

How many peoples’ nerves, like mine, failed them in protecting the young people – most of them poor or from orphanages – systematically abused by priests?

How many powerful men and powerful systems covered it up?

ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson’s nerve did not fail. Both her unflinching determination and the bravery of men and women in telling of abuse, contrast with the craven cowardice of the men they spoke about. But only the first two of the three episodes of Ferguson’s ‘Revelation’ are still available online. The last aired the night before Pell’s release.

Casting aside the Magna Carta

It was clear well before that George Pell was going to acquitted and released on Monday.

In response, Herald journalist Malcolm Knox, said potential jury members “have another reason to be excused. They are wasting their time.”

Knox says the case extends a precedent, set in the 1994 case of M v The Queen and given statutory back-up by the 2009 Victoria’s Criminal Procedure Act. It entrenches a new role for the High Court.

For the last 800 years, since the Magna Carta, appeals courts could rule only on points of law, and only juries could rule on the facts. Now the High Court’s seven judges could reject the jury’s deliberations.

Knox says, “As Melbourne Law School Professor Jeremy Gans has written, by viewing videotape of trial evidence, higher courts have stealthily turned themselves into tribunals of fact. The Victorian Court of Appeal did that in the Pell case, which enabled the High Court, as reviewer of the Court of Appeal, to interpose itself in the same way and review the evidence.

Unlike the jury, the high court did not see the evidence presented. They read only bloodless transcripts.

Towards feudal powers

All of us have received an abrupt email or text, and wondered why they were being attacked, when its author was simply rushed and meant no offence. We take meaning from not just what is said, but in the way it is said, the pauses, the rush of emotion, the quiet, direct gaze. Dignity, evasiveness. Truth comes from these as well as from the words.

There was no scientific evidence to confuse the jury. Those twelve citizens simply had to decide, beyond “reasonable doubt”, that the accused was guilty. But those seven powerful men, appointed by governments, said these citizens who gave up months of their ordinary lives to listen honestly and very carefully to often traumatic evidence, were wrong.

This is a big step back towards feudal powers. Of course, medieval tort laws have been used against unions and others, especially the CFMMEU. 

This is on top of the Registered Organisations Commission, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the special rules for evidence and interrogation in alleged terrorism cases, the anti-bikie restrictions, the Northern Territory Intervention, the strip searches of kids at music festivals, the sniffer dogs at suburban railway stations, and now the Covid-19 lockdown laws.

No exceptions?

The evidence of Pell’s accuser, the court said, was “credible and reliable”, but “belief in the complainant as a compelling witness was not enough to convict”. George Pell had not spoken in his trial. Had not been cross examined.

Church voices alleged the offense was impossible. Too busy, too heavily robed, could never have happened because of the rituals and routines after church. This was how it always went. No exceptions. 

Journalist David Marr writes of “Pell’s master of ceremonies Monsignor Charles Portelli. This church official said he was with the archbishop at all times that morning, was absolutely sure of his recollection of the particular day.”

How did he remember that day so clearly? What marked it out?

As David Marr points out, the prosecution had found holes in defence evidence, but did not demolish it. They did enough to unanimously convince a jury and two appeal court judges.

For these appeals, you have to be very rich. But the poor rarely have legal representation if they face trial in an archaic and bewildering legal system.

Jails are full of the poor, First Peoples and those the education system has failed.

Millions on defence

Marr says Pell, “can leave it now to his supporters to rage on his behalf. It is going to be a mighty storm. Category Five.”

It is not only, says Marr, “a mighty triumph for his backers, who invested millions in his defence, but for the narrative of prejudice the church has spun all the years since the Melbourne police came for the cardinal in Rome.

“The beleaguered church. The misunderstood church. The church under attack by secularists. The church pursued by abuse victims, police and journalists with axes to grind.”

And one of Pell’s accusers driven to suicide before the trial, his father inconsolable.

Pell’s supporters, who lie in capitalism’s heart, are not the only ones raging. Others, more powerfully, are organising steady strength and truth against ruling class power.

The young man on whose evidence Pell was originally jailed said he would not let what happened define him. That is because he knows he is not alone. He is part of a movement, one that will not go away no matter how rich and powerful and temporarily victorious their foes are now.

Other allegations, corroborated, by boys who are now men, will be civil cases. Some speak of abuse in a swimming pool. While children were laughing in that silky water, abuse was hidden under it. Whatever the law decides, a new lore of collective truth and demand for a just system arises.

Another storm brewing

The morning after Pell’ acquittal, a friend wrote, “The courts protect the privileges of the rich and powerful. They are stacked with judges whose main role is to maintain the law of the rich from the ordinary people seeking justice. Be angry, be outraged and fight for our world.”

Implied in David Marr’s comments is that there is one law for the rich and a different law for the poor. But neither he, nor other bourgeois commentators have directly acknowledged the class nature of the courts as instruments of the capitalist state, defending the pillars of capitalism and suppressing the people.
This from First Peoples on another friend’s Facebook feed that morning: “Justice system protects the rich and well connected. It is broken.”

Reply: “It’s not broken. It was designed this way and it is working perfectly. The people who benefit from this system are the same who have buildings, roads and suburbs named after them. Not the everyday peeps like us. We need to scrap it and build a new system that looks after all, not just those with wealth and resources.”

This case is exposing to more and more people the thousands of years of patriarchy, overlaid with centuries of capitalist class rule – in all their brutality and injustice and servitude of women and children.

Another storm is brewing. People will not be silenced. Lesson comes upon lesson, as if one hundred years were in one day.


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