Should Cardinal George Pell have appealed his conviction?

Judgement day: The decision on Cardinal George Pell's appeal will be handed down on Wednesday.
Judgement day: The decision on Cardinal George Pell's appeal will be handed down on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, a judgement will be made on Cardinal George Pell's appeal against his child sexual assault conviction.

The judges in the case have deemed it so important that, like the original judgement, it will be broadcast live on TV.

But as the world holds its breath for the result, a larger question than his innocence or guilt is being ignored.

What will be the effect on sufferers of child sexual abuse, past and present, if his conviction is overturned, and he walks free?

Along with fellow psychologists around the world, I first encountered victims of child sexual abuse in the 1970s, and in considerable numbers.

The people I met were often parents who suffered acute anxiety about their children, or had great difficulty in being close to their wives or husbands.

My patients were the least damaged on the spectrum, the worst survivors had such severe anxiety problems they could not form relationships at all, or hold jobs, and were often addicted or homeless.

Many thousands around the world would take their own lives or die of neglect in the 20th century, as they may well have done for centuries before.

It seemed incomprehensible that such a crime had been so widespread and so well hidden.

A Royal Commission was to eventually find that seven per cent of clergy were involved in abusing children, and in the Christian Brothers order, it was 22 per cent.

The judge in the original Pell case was correctly insistent that he was not on trial for his failings in dealing with the long history of clergy abuse.

The cruelties of the Melbourne Response, or his astonishingly arrogant dismissals of people such as Chrissie Foster and her late husband following the rape of their two little girls were a separate matter for the conscience of those involved.

Pell was found guilty on two very specific assaults, and nothing more. (And whatever the verdict on Wednesday, people will still hold their own convictions of what actually took place).

My question here - which is genuine, not rhetorical - is whether in even initiating an appeal, and the possibility of walking free, Pell is committing the most harmful action of a long life of moral ambiguity.

The question is moral, and theological, and so in lay terms may not make sense; but I will make an attempt. The appeal is an act of Pell's own choosing.

There are people watching the result who have never come forward. There are young people who are being abused today, even in secular settings, and are wondering if they tell, what might happen?

This does not appear to have been a consideration either for Pell or his backers. His own victimhood seems to be his predominant focus.

We all have rights in law. But for a professed Christian - as Bishop Comensoli has argued this week - there are higher considerations. Jesus Christ's most significant action, the defining heart of the faith on which western civilization was founded, was to lay down his life for the suffering of others. To walk knowingly to his own torture and death because it was for the greater good.

We Christians are meant to pivot our lives on this fact - we are not here in this world for ourselves. There is a redemptive path available to us all, and the effects of our actions on others must be our first consideration.

Does this not mean that for the greater good, Pell should by choice remain in prison, and serve his sentence, even while maintaining his innocence if he wishes? Because this would send a message of atonement and assurance to every terrified young person or older victim, that they are safe to speak up, and will be listened to?

And would not his walking free, as a result of a well funded appeal, lead to more deaths and despair, and even to more abuse. I don't know the answer to this, but think it ought to be asked.

Steve Biddulph is the author of The New Manhood, and Ten Things Girls Need Most.