One of the most senior figures of the Catholic Church to be tried and convicted of child sexual abuse is now a free man.
On April 7, Australia’s highest court overturned Cardinal George Pell’s six-year prison sentence for the alleged sexual abuse of two choir boys in 1996 on the basis that the evidence presented in the case had not proven his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The High Court judges unanimously ruled that there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted”.
Cardinal Pell’s was one of the most high-profile lawsuits to spotlight child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The question now is whether this latest ruling is a setback in the pursuit of justice for the institutionalised sexual abuse of children.
Sexual offences are difficult to prosecute in most circumstances, and Pell’s case illustrates the challenges that abuse survivors face in seeking justice, which are compounded if the abuse took place years or decades ago. As the years pass, it is often too late to collect DNA evidence, more difficult to find witnesses, and the recollections of the witnesses who are available may fade.
At the High Court, while Pell’s lawyers did not discredit his accuser’s testimony, they argued that the jury’s guilty verdict in the 2018 trial had relied too heavily on the testimony as evidence, without properly taking into account other evidence. The High Court judges agreed.
For some survivors of childhood sexual abuse, there will simply not be sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person they accuse is guilty. This can be traumatic for the survivors who will not see their perpetrators held accountable for their actions, but it is a fact in justice systems that guarantee fair trials, no matter who the accused is or what they are accused of.
This is not the only challenge survivors face, however. While not a problem in the lawsuit against Pell, a common barrier in seeking justice is the presence of limitation periods – the number of years a person has to take legal action after an offence, harm or injury occurred.
The reason this is such an obstacle for survivors of childhood sexual abuse is that the nature of the crime means it usually takes them years, if not decades, to come to terms with what happened to them and to report it, by which time the limitation period may have expired and they will have no means of bringing their perpetrator to justice or securing redress.
There have been encouraging moves to recalibrate justice systems to the reality of abuse survivors. In Australia, for example, following recommendations by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the state of Victoria removed limitation periods for civil claims relating to sexual or physical abuse of children in 2015, while New South Wales and Queensland followed suit in 2016.
Pell’s legal case may not have concluded as many survivors of clergy abuse and their allies had expected, but it has actually left a lasting positive impact.
The widespread media coverage alone that the case generated will have undoubtedly raised awareness of clergy abuse in Australia and beyond, and perhaps even encouraged other survivors to report their abuse. Pell, for instance, is now facing at least two civil lawsuits from alleged abuse survivors which were filed in 2019.
But the impact does not end at the Catholic Church. If we can learn one thing from Pell’s case, it is that even the most powerful figures and institutions – whether they are religious, state or privately-run – cannot avoid facing up to accusations of abuse and its cover-up.
And this has the potential to filter down into all settings where children suffer sexual abuse, including family homes, schools and sport clubs, among others – all places where adults hold positions of trust and power.
While Pell’s acquittal may be seen as a setback, his accuser said he hoped the case would not “discourage” other survivors from coming forward. He reassured them “that most people recognise the truth when they hear it”, noting that he had felt supported by police and prosecutors. Undoubtedly, if survivors stopped coming forward, there would be no justice to pursue.
This is where survivor-led networks come in. These have led the way in supporting survivors of abuse, mobilising and making collective demands for truth, justice and redress.
For instance, long before Australia and New Zealand created their respective public inquiries into institutional child sexual abuse, the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN), a movement of people who had suffered abuse while in out-of-home care, had been lobbying for justice and driving the issue onto the political agenda since the 1990s.
But achieving justice should not just depend on survivors. For public inquiries to even happen, politicians must heed the demands of survivors and contribute to government lobbying.
Justice requires police and prosecutors to act independently of the powerful institutions they may need to investigate.
Law reform requires the same of legislators. And media coverage of the issue helps build pressure on all relevant sectors.
If perpetrators of abuse and the institutions that shield them are to see their day in court, the key to achieving justice for survivors of sexual abuse is absolutely in the collective response.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.