What has happened in the case of Cardinal Pell?

It has been widely reported that Cardinal George Pell has been committed for trial in Australia on charges of child abuse. In a guest post, Neil Addison, a Barrister and former Senior Crown Prosecutor, explains what that means.

As has been widely reported, a Magistrate in Victoria has decided that Cardinal Pell should stand trial on charges of child abuse. Somewhat bizarrely, the exact charges have not been publicised but I assume that Cardinal Pell’s legal team know the details.

The decision was made after a month-long hearing when prosecution witnesses gave evidence and were cross-examined. It is important to recognise that this hearing was not a trial: it is what older English lawyers (such as myself) call an ‘old style committal’ – a procedure which was abolished in England in 2005 but which survives in many Commonwealth jurisdictions and in the USA.

The purpose of the old-style committal hearing is to act as a screening process by determining whether there is “a case to answer”. It is not there to determine whether a defendant is guilty or innocent. The Magistrate had to decide whether the evidence of the prosecution witnesses “taken at its highest” is such that a jury could convict: not “would convict” – merely “could convict”.

At this stage the Magistrate has not heard any defence evidence: in particular, she has not heard any evidence from Cardinal Pell himself. This is because the sole purpose of the hearing is to test the prosecution evidence.

The Magistrate has apparently decided that the evidence for around half of the charges that Cardinal Pell originally faced was so weak that there was no case for him to answer on them. So far as the remaining charges are concerned, the prosecution witnesses will have to give evidence again before a jury and it seems inevitable that Cardinal Pell himself will give evidence and be cross-examined on that evidence. The jury will then decide on guilt or innocence: until then, Cardinal Pell – like every other defendant – is entitled to be presumed to be innocent.

Neil Addison

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