The Deep Thirst for Justice

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The last few days have been huge. What was only leaked out in December is now known – Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Australia and one of the most important in the world, has been convicted of a number of child sex offences, all centering around one incident in 1996 where he is now found by a jury of his peers to have committed a number of wicked indecent acts.

The suppression order on reporting that case was lifted when another case against him was withdrawn and suddenly every TV channel and online news site exploded.

Any fair-minded person will acknowledge that this was always going to be a very difficult trial to protect from bias and undue influence. The suppression order itself is evidence enough of that. Pell is, in somewhat equal measure, one of the most disliked people in Australia in some circles and one of the most highly-regarded in others. Depending on your viewpoint he may represent either a corrupted patriarchal abusive institution or is a keystone in a bulwark against destructive modernising forces. That opinion going into the trial was polarised is no understatement.

Then there was the nature of the crimes themselves. We’ve only just come out of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. The Roman Catholic Church did not fair well at all and Pell was seen as distant and lacking in compassion. Perhaps a few decades ago he could have expected a more courteous manner of questioning but those days are long gone and he was grilled when he took his seat before the enquiry. The failings of the Roman Catholic Church (along with other denominations and organisations) to deal with sexual predators in their midst was there for all to see and Pell was in many ways the figurehead for it all. If ever there was a target with a bullseye drawn on it, it was Pell. For some he represented everything wrong with organisations that would rather protect their own reputation (lacking as it was) rather than the rights and needs of the survivors.

As a nation this was now in the centre of our attention. Rapidly after the sex abuse enquiry came the furoré over family violence and church responses. Add to the mix the #metoo movement and it’s easy to see that there has been a profound shift in our understanding and action on abuse of all sorts. We’ve learned to believe complainants where previously we would have considered their allegations to be too preposterous (one of the major failings of churches and others). We understand more and more the gravity of what is done and the lifelong effects it has on survivors. One of the boys in the Pell case died of a heroin overdose and it was attending his funeral that catalysed the other to make a complaint to the police.

The thirst for justice

Behind all this lies a deep, deep thirst for justice. For an increasingly materialistic society it is almost a contradiction. The impetus that wrongs be dealt with flows from an acknowledgement that there is a higher standard, an external and unchanging frame of reference, by which actions can be measured. There is a morality that is undermined when people are abused. We cling to this idea even when in other areas of our life we will deny that there is more to the universe than the atoms that make up everything that we see.

The Christian is not surprised by this impulse deep within humanity. It is the recognition of the way things should be. In the Bible, God is constantly calling us to act with justice, especially in court.

Ex. 23:6    “Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. 

This is, itself, a reflection of who God is:

Psa. 9:16 The LORD is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.

The particular concern of much of these texts (as seen in Ex. 23:6) is that those who are most vulnerable should not be disadvantaged. Exodus 23:1-9 is a list of such possible situations. While not exhaustive it makes its point; the poor (not least widows and orphans), the alien all deserve a fair hearing and justice. The least able to advocate for themselves should be treated fairly. The innocent must be protected and the guilty should pay and be seen to pay.

And we instinctively agree. We long for justice. That’s why we find it so hard to forgive because forgiveness often looks like the setting aside of justice.

And most of all we want justice for survivors of abuse. If anyone needs protection in our legal system it is them. So we say “you will be believed” and we mean it. We don’t dismiss their allegations but investigate them fully. We set up ways to protect them in the court itself. None of it is perfect but it does reflect our desire to get this right. We thirst for justice, not least for the most vulnerable amongst us.

Prov. 21:15 When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous 

but terror to evildoers.

Justice for our enemies

Ex. 23:4-5    “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. 5 If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it. 

In the middle of Exodus 23’s call for justice come these intriguing 2 verses. It is interesting to consider what a “just” response to finding your enemy’s wandering donkey would be. Stealing it is obviously wrong but why not just let it continue down the road? After all, what business is it of yours? You don’t like their owner, let them worry about their own property.

But the God of true deep justice calls us to more. Be sure you help them with it. This is genuine justice, going beyond what is required for those who we would want to do the opposite for. That it comes right in the middle of a list of requirements for legal justice is telling. While not a direct instruction for the courtroom, the import is obvious; if there is anyone we are likely to treat unfairly, it is our enemy.

That is not to say that we let the enemy off for any wrongdoing. On the contrary. Again, the Scriptures are clear that God is very much minded to do right in this area:

Psa. 7:6 Arise, LORD, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice.

It is in the prosecution of our enemies that justice most needs to be seen to be done. I am always reminded of this tremendous scene from 1966’s A Man For All Seasons.

I’d give the devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake!

It is a challenging position to take, difficult to engage with wherever we gather; whether in the courtroom in Melbourne, the court of King Henry VIII or with those Israelites around Sinai thousands of years ago. The foundation of justice for all of us is to protect and promote justice for our own enemy, even the devil himself, lest in cutting down the sheltering trees of the law we allow a terrible wind to blow through.

Justice for Pell?

As soon as the verdict was made public the responses began flowing in, far too many to catalogue here. Some jumped upon the verdict with glee; Pell was getting everything he deserved, not just for these 5 vile acts but for everything else. On the other side are those who think this is all one big conspiracy to get him, that Pell was the victim of a massive shift in public opinion. It needs to be said that to argue that way is to be on the border of making the judge of the case a party in the conspiracy, a position that is utterly nonsensical.

Towards the middle are the more sensible responses, beginning with the simple observation that this is justice for Pell. He has been tried by a jury of his peers and found guilty. The survivor has spoken and been listened to and believed. This is a good thing. In so many cases the very nature of the abuse makes it very difficult to get a conviction. They are deeds done in private, away from others and so the truth is hard to establish in public. We may believe the victim but more is needed to convict so when a conviction is achieved it is a remarkable success for all who worked so hard.

Yet this difficulty also means that for others there are some serious questions that need to be asked about Pell’s prosecution. When someone like Frank Brennan raises concerns we need to stop and listen.

I was very surprised by the verdict. In fact, I was devastated. My only conclusion is that the jury must have disregarded many of the criticisms so tellingly made by Richter of the complainant’s evidence and that, despite the complainant being confused about all manner of things, the jury must nevertheless have thought — as the recent royal commission discussed — that children who are sexually violated do not always remember details of time, place, dress and posture. Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him. The jurors must have judged the complainant to be honest and reliable even though many of the details he gave were improbable if not impossible.

“Truth and justice after the Pell verdict”

Brennan’s piece lays out the argument in some detail. Again, he is no reactionary nor a blind unquestioning supporter of the Roman Catholic Church who simply won’t countenance any criticism. He has himself been a critic many times.

But he’s also a well-respected lawyer just like this job injury lawyer Vegas expert who points us to questions about the vestments that Pell would have been wearing, the movement of an Archbishop and attendants during and after a solemn mass and so on.

Alongside others he raises the basic concern that Pell was convicted on the basis of one witness whose testimony had no other corroboration. As Brennan notes, his testimony must have been compelling (of that there is no doubt) but should it have been enough in the face of much that pointed in another direction?

To raise these concerns is not the same as doubting the survivors, even though some will seek to paint it in that light. It is simply to question the process. It is, they would argue, to uphold justice itself.

Defending the Devil?

I am no fan of George Pell. I can’t think of a single time when I’ve wanted to be seen as in his corner. As a Cardinal and Archbishop of Sydney he was the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia and therefore its representative. I’m on the record for arguing that Roman Catholicism is a terrible distortion of the gospel and Pell was it’s chief proponent in Australia.

I cringed in embarrassment at some of what he said when the ABC put him up against Richard Dawkins a number of years ago on their Q&A programme.

Then there’s his performance over the Royal Commission. He came across at times as unfeeling, heartless even. Perhaps that’s just his demeanour but it didn’t help. He was talking about the most vulnerable and defenceless and often didn’t look like he cared.

I also have a deep fierce hatred of the abuse of children and others. I have personally walked one man into a police station so that they can be questioned by police, charged and eventually prosecuted for their crimes. I am so grateful for the training I received from the Diocese of Sydney in this regard and to those around me who tipped me off to individuals and had the wisdom and courage to support me through the process. I would do it again without hesitation because justice must be done.

So why am I writing this piece now?

Even the Devil deserves justice. One way or another. And the Christian should be the one who upholds justice.

Perhaps Pell is the devil. Perhaps he is the devil’s tool. Perhaps he is pure as the driven snow. A verdict in a court ought to be enough to establish the matter and yet there are those occasions when it is not. That’s why we have an appeals process. The very concept of courts of appeal is grounded in the realisation that juries and judges can get things wrong and that those wrongs need to be rectified. Surely any fair-minded person who has looked at the detail of the Pell case can see that there are some serious questions that need to be asked.

None of this is to doubt the survivors. But this is the complexity of the situation – justice for everyone, especially the survivors, must be grounded in justice for everyone, even the devil himself if necessary. It is a nuanced position but it must be maintained if we are to defend the integrity of our justice system for all involved.

Clearly something awful happened to those two boys. One lost his life through substance abuse and the other is still terribly scarred. I don’t think any sensible person would question that, nor should they. But that is not the same as saying that there are questions about the integrity of a conviction in this case. Again, this is a nuanced distinction but that nuance lies at the heart of the transparency of justice. It will necessarily mean that all too often a wrongdoer will walk free.

The Scriptures are full of calls to the people of Israel to uphold justice in their legal systems. As the nation collapses into immorality and idolatry it is seen, not least, in the failure of the courts to uphold what is right. The minor prophets are a favourite of Christian social justice advocates, and rightly so.

Amos 5:12 For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.

There is no suggestion, of course, that Pell’s trial was influenced by bribes or the like. That’s not the point that I’m making. My point is something deeper – that the Christian biblical worldview strives for justice in the courts and is distressed when it is not seen to be done.

And yet even as we raise this issue we return to the underlying conundrum, justice for who? Certainly justice for the oppressed victims. But does Pell not have a right to justice too? If (and it is a big if) he has not been treated fairly then that must also be rectified. But were that to happen it would undoubtedly be the case that we would still not be satisfied. Indeed, it’s hard to see how any eventual outcome of the case can be really satisfying.

Satisfying Justice

At first sight it might appear that questions over the conviction of Pell are a conflict between two views of justice. One view prefers that wrongdoers be punished, even if there are a few difficulties or even blemishes in the process along the way. The other appears to lay aside that quest for the right outcome by privileging the process itself, even at the expense of the correct result. Is it really a battle between the ends and the means? Can both be satisfied?

The problem is our imperfect system. We promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and yet people lie. Or they are mistaken. Or any number of things and so we must work hard to establish what the truth really is.

To question the Pell verdict is perhaps not necessarily to undermine justice or truth but to uphold it. It is not so much an argument that seeks to defend Pell (who may very well be the devil himself) but one that seeks to defend justice.

Justice that is not seen to be justice will never properly satisfy. If a question remains over Pell’s conviction then there will always be doubt. It might initially put our minds at rest to know that Pell is behind bars but at what greater cost? Can it be right that you could be convicted of a crime on the basis of one single witness? There is great wisdom in the Biblical guideline:

Deut. 19:15    One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

This is one of the major principles of our legal system and yet now it has come into question, even though the single witness was truly compelling. No wonder there is a call for an appeal not just from Pell’s legal team but from a much wider body. There are deep matters of principle at stake here. I would find it hard to imagine that Pell will not get another day in court. The appeal case will possibly be most scrutinised in Australian history.

Of course, if they uphold the conviction then that must be the end of the matter. Controversy will have been settled and doubts put to rest. There will, hopefully, be genuine satisfying justice.

But if the conviction is overturned then there will be much deeper questions to ask. Questions that even now are swirling around.

Ultimate Justice

Ultimately only God, who sees what is done in secret, knows. The Scriptures speak of a day when everything will come to light. It is a day where Jesus will be at the centre:

Acts 17:31 For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man [Jesus] he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Jesus’ resurrection is the precursor of a general resurrection accompanied by justice for all. There will be nothing that remains buried.

The book of Revelation pictures the scene in a non-literal but no less compelling way:

Rev. 20:11    Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

There is no escape from this justice of God. Whatever the outcome of the Australian law processes for Pell there is still a day of judgement for all of us yet to come. For the Christian this provides assurance that even when injustice prevails in this life there is a final reckoning where no mistake will be made. There is a judge that sees all, knows all and acts with true justice. That is where we find our ultimate satisfaction, even while we seek to gain as much justice as possible in the here and now.

It is also where we see the fruit of mercy. For there is one more book that is opened…

15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Alongside the record of all our wrongdoing is another book. A book of mercy. A book where our names may be recorded. It is not deserved but it is God’s good gift to all who trust in Jesus.

Even the mercy of God himself flows through an uncompromised process of justice. It is not justice set aside but justice carried out by one who chooses to be punished in our place (Rom. 3:21-26). Wrongdoing is still justly punished and yet the unjust are set free. It speaks of forgiveness and along with it a strangely satisfying justice.

For the Christian it is only the Cross, Resurrection and return of Jesus that provide real satisfaction. It cannot be any other way for there is no-one else who is truly just, nobody else that satisfies our deep thirst for justice.

As we wait for his return and that day of true justice, we seek to uphold and promote justice here. Pell’s case with its intersection of deep wickedness, church institutions and legal process has thrust upon us a great conundrum. How can we find that truly satisfying justice that we so deeply thirst for, most of all for those who have had such terrible crimes committed against them? We need to plead for God’s mercy in working it all out.

image source: Max Planck Institute


This piece will make some people unhappy. Some of the time it will be because they can’t be bothered to read carefully and will jump to conclusions.

If you think for a moment that I’m defending Pell, then read again more carefully.

If you think for a moment that I’m in any way downplaying the seriousness of sexual abuse or seeking to undermine the survivors then please read again much more carefully.

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