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The Pell Case: Lessons for Church and State

Cardinal George Pell pleaded not guilty before a jury to child sexual assault charges in 2018. The public knew little of the proceedings because the trial judge had imposed a suppression order, prohibiting the media from publicising the evidence and court proceedings. Fr Frank Brennan SJ was asked by the Australian Catholic bishops to follow the proceedings and to offer commentary on the conduct of the proceedings once the suppression orders were lifted. The bishops asked that the commentary be seen, as far as possible, to be clear, objective and impartial.

After the initial conviction and then after the unanimous acquittal by the High Court of Australia, Fr Brennan spoke publicly about the proceedings. He has now published a book Observations on the Pell Proceedings. By correcting the gross failures in the Pell case, we might help to relieve the trauma of institutional child sexual abuse. Fr Brennan will propose lessons for both church and state in this year’s St Thomas More Oration. As a society we need to do better, and the legal system needs to play its part, as does the Church, if truth, justice and healing are to be a reality for complainants, victims, and anyone wrongly accused.

‘Whenever men or women heed the call of truth, their conscience then guides their actions reliably towards good. Precisely because of the witness which he bore, even at the price of his life, to the primacy of truth over power, Saint Thomas More is venerated as an imperishable example of moral integrity.’ Thomas More ‘distinguished himself by his constant fidelity to legitimate authority and institutions precisely in his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice.’ Thomas More ‘placed his own public activity at the service of the person, especially if that person was weak or poor;[and] he dealt with social controversies with a superb sense of fairness’. 1

Tonight I want to draw lessons from the Pell saga, heeding the call to truth, asserting the primacy of truth over power, working to enhance the place of legitimate authority and institutions which are to be administered not for the sake of power, but to seek the supreme ideal of justice, always having an eye for the one who is weak or poor, and attempting to deal with the most intense of social controversies with a sense of fairness.


frfrankbrennan 250Fr Frank Brennan is a Distinguished Fellow of the PM Glynn Institute at Australian Catholic University and an Adjunct Professor at the Thomas More Law School at ACU. He is the author of numerous books on human rights having chaired the Australian Government’s 2009 National Human Rights Consultation and having been a member of the Australian Government’s 2018 Religious Freedom Review. Most recently he has served on the Australian Government’s Senior Advisory Group designing a proposed ‘Indigenous Voice’ for the First Nations Peoples in Australia.


  • Observations of the Pell Proceedings by Fr Frank Brennan SJ can be purchased directly through the publisher at www.connorcourtpublishing.com.au.

  • Click here or the image below to read the The Catholic Weekly exclusive with Fr Frank Brennan


frankbrennan cw 665



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