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Published: 08 April 2020
Author: Kate Malone

Pell verdict paves way for release of Royal Commission documents

Yesterday marked a difficult day for many survivors of abuse, with the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual offences against two choirboys unanimously overturned by the High Court of Australia. Pell was yesterday released from Barwon Prison. See our recent article: Pell conviction quashed, but civil action still an option.

While this marks the end of the road in the criminal justice system for these particular allegations against Pell, it is worth noting that many priests, other members of religious organisations and other non-religious perpetrators of child sexual abuse have been successfully prosecuted in the criminal justice system over the years.

It is important that survivors continue to come forward about what happened to them and do not lose heart from the result in Pell’s case.

Easier to obtain a result in Civil Court

The lack of a criminal conviction against Pell does not prevent civil claims for compensation being pursued against him by survivors of abuse, or further criminal claims against him making their way to court. The civil burden of proof is lower than that in the criminal system. The civil burden requires that the claim be established on “the balance of probabilities” whereas the criminal system requires that the events in question must have occurred “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is a much higher threshold.

It has been reported in the media that a number of civil claims are set to be launched against the Catholic Church and/or Pell in the near future.

Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations, there have been a number of legal reforms in the area of abuse law. These changes to the law make it much easier to take legal action through the courts than was the case in the past.

Royal Commission documents should be released

Now that Pell’s criminal proceedings have been finalised, many have quickly advocated for the release of previously redacted Royal Commission documents relating to him.

On 6 December 2017, the Royal Commission released its findings on Case Study 28 – Catholic authorities in Ballarat. However, approximately 60 pages of the report regarding the Royal Commission’s findings in relation to Pell were withheld to ensure that their release did not prejudice current and future legal proceedings.

Pell provided his evidence during Case Study 28 via videolink from Rome and was critically examined in relation to his knowledge of, and response to, offending by other pedophile priests including such notorious offenders as Gerald Ridsdale whom Pell publicly supported during Ridsdale’s early criminal trials.

Release of these documents will be extremely important for a number of reasons.

Why release of Pell documents is important

Firstly, the findings of the Royal Commission in relation to Pell’s knowledge of offences being committed by other clergy members may be very valuable evidence for those pursuing criminal and civil claims against those clergy members.

Secondly, the release of the redacted Royal Commission report will help to foster a sense of transparency for survivors who have so often in the past dealt with cover ups and a lack of information being provided to them by powerful institutions. While it is of course important that the functions of the justice system are not tainted by prejudicial information, the release of the redacted Royal Commission documents now would hopefully provide peace of mind that the information is on the table and go some way to correcting the power imbalance between the institution of the Catholic Church and the survivors of abuse.

We understand that the Victorian Attorney General must now provide advice to the Federal Attorney General that all legal avenues have been exhausted in relation to Pell. Should this advice be forthcoming, then the Federal Attorney General would be required to speak to the Royal Commission about the release of the redacted documents.

Survivors of abuse are welcome to contact our office on 1300 366 441 for a sensitive, confidential and free of charge discussion with one of our team of experts about what your legal options may be.

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