In any other year it would have been the biggest news story of the day, the week and the month.
But it isn’t. Not in these early months of 2020. Yes, it’s there on the front page of the online papers. But it’s buried under an avalanche of stories about coronavirus and death.
Cardinal George Pell has walked from prison a free man, found not guilty on appeal over his conviction of historical child sex abuse.
Any other day there would have been hoards of people outside the courtroom – and indeed inside it – all pressing up against each other, breathing into each other’s faces, shouting questions or comments or expressing anger, with little drops of spittle going everywhere.
Not today. Not in these times. The courtroom is as lonely as the prison cell Pell occupied.
And now today, justice in the time of coronavirus sees a 78 year old man who is in the high risk category as this pandemic sweeps the world, walk free with little fanfare, no crowds and precious little media airtime. After all that time, all that to-ing and fro-ing, after all the pitched battles in another seemingly endless round of the culture wars, Pell is a free man.
The nub of what the Justices said is this:
The High Court found that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted, and ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place.
And you can read the rest of their argument here.
That’s justice. We all want justice. Until justice doesn’t give us what we want. Justice is implacable, blind and uncaring. Justice is not mercy.
A lawyer friend of mine said he gets people coming to him asking for justice, and he observes that if it’s justice you’re looking for, you won’t find it here.
Pell is not free because he did not commit those crimes. You can still choose to believe him as he cries his innocence, or you can still choose to believe his accuser’s call for justice.
The court cast no aspersions on the testimony of his accuser. In fact both the Victorian Department of Public Prosecutions, and Pell’s own senior counsel, at the time of the trial, agreed that Pell’s accuser was a credible witness. Pell is free because the High Court was not satisfied with the prosecution’s case in a number of key areas. Have a read of the link above and see what you think.
But aside from what you think it raises the issue of justice. It raises the issue of justice and where it can be found. And increasingly we have to say it can’t necessarily be found here.
The Bible speaks of God as the only truly just judge. Not that he simply makes just verdicts according to proper and due processes, as the High Court would have us believe it did, contra the initial County Court jury trial in Victoria. But that he makes such judgements with all facts at hand. Nothing escapes his gaze. Nothing.
That is why Abraham, when pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah throws himself on God’s justice:
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Genesis 18:25)
Abraham ends up pleading for the cities on the basis of ten righteous men. He knows that God will know if there are ten. God won’t miss a couple in the count. It’s God’s omniscience that will ensure that justice is done according to Abraham’s request. There will be no gaff in the prosecution case.
And Jesus too, when he is about to suffer the most grievous injustice of all – crucifixion at the hands of those he had created – “entrusts himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23).
Currently there are a group of people who were treated unjustly by the church planting network The Crowded House. We’re not sure if the process that is being implemented internally by that network is going to deliver justice to us. Things move slowly, and there are many complicating factors.
There are vested interests running left, right and centre. There are obfuscations and denials going on. There are myriad reasons why we will not fully see justice come to pass. And for many who are extremely hurt and broken by the whole sorry debacle, no amount of justice will reverse the hurts.
At the time of Pell’s conviction I cautioned against extreme reaction from those who would have simply called Pell a victim of the culture wars. I wrote about that here.
Here is some of what I said at that time:
This isn’t about Pell. This isn’t about the church per se, though there are serious questions to ask. This is ultimately about a victim who wanted justice and cried out for it, without any desire to work an angle or state an agenda. He simply wanted justice. And our court system played that out in trying circumstances.
So let’s leave aside the culture warriors and their desires for the decline of the church (a job we can do well enough without their help) and think of that unnamed man who says that his life was wrecked by this abuse. We should be very cautious not to dismiss what the court found to be a credible witness, especially in light of the fact that thousands of sexual abuse cases – across many churches and traditions – have been disbelieved or shunted to the side for the sake of convenience for so long.
And now Pell’s conviction has been overturned. Yet at no time has his accuser been found to have spoken falsely. For those of us saying “And a good thing too” about the overturning, spare a thought for the call of justice by that man which will not go unanswered.
In this age, at least.
Because there is an age to come where all matters of justice will be settled justly by the Judge of all the earth who will do what is right no matter what any conviction or appeal decides in an earthly court.
And if you don’t believe that there is any justice outside of this age you will be torn between anger or despair. You will forever feel that justice is always just ahead of you , just dangling ahead of your reach. And that will wear you out.
We hear it said that constantly that “the arc of history bends towards justice.” Show me the proof of that outside of the story of the Bible that culminates in Jesus. Never mind me, show that man who says he was abused by Pell the proof of that. Surely that statement rolls blithely off the tongue of those who have never experienced serious ongoing injustice.
The resurrection of Jesus is the proof that God is a God of complete justice. We celebrate that this weekend, and I hope that Pell’s accuser, who still attends church (when it’s open) can take some comfort in that ultimate expression of living justice.
Pell’s conviction has been overturned. That does not mean he is innocent, it merely means he has been declared not guilty. Innocence was not up for grabs in the court of justice.
So if you’re a supporter of Pell, and you see this as a victory over a hard secular cultural push, don’t gloat. And if you’re a supporter of the man who says he was abused by Pell, don’t despair. The Judge of all the earth will do what is right. Maybe just not at the time that we wish Him to.