The High Court has ruled in favour of Cardinal Pell after serving just over a year of a six-year sentence for the sexual abuse of two choirboys. He has now walked free from Barwon Prison and living in Sydney.
In his first television interview since being freed from prison, Pell and his supporters are now turning their attention to whether media and others have defamed Pell at any point. Pell said he believed in the principle of free speech but accused the ABC of presenting only one view “I acknowledge the right of those who differ from me to state their views, he said. “But in a national broadcaster to have an overwhelming presentation of one view, and only one view, I think that’s a betrayal of the national interest.”
The fair reporting of court proceedings cannot found a claim for defamation.
The reporting of the 2 trials that Cardinal Pell faced were suppressed until the guilty verdict in the second.
Whether the reporting of allegations against Cardinal Pell since they first surfaced can found a claim for defamation is problematic not the least because the time in which to sue has expired.
The program the ABC aired on 2 April 2020, which involved allegations from the 1970s made by a now middle aged man, and which the Crown chose not to prosecute in the wake of the convictions recently quashed stands as an exception and could be the subject of action.
Cardinal Pell would have to argue what has been published and broadcast about him was actuated by malice and was untrue.
Having had a jury verdict quashed as unsafe it would be a gamble for Cardinal Pell to put his reputation in issue again and have another jury find that the matters were true and not actuated by malice.
Under defamation laws in Australia, which are state based and similar to each other but not identical if Cardinal Pell sues for defamation the defendant(s), which published the allegations against him have to prove the claims are true and it would not be up to Cardinal Pell to prove them as false.
The widely published articles and their headlines, which circulated before the suppression orders, potentially carried inferences that the allegations against Cardinal Pell were true and were not effectively balanced by anything contrary that Cardinal Pell or his supporters said.
Cardinal Pell is the most divisive character in contemporary Australia. As a divider of public opinion we have not seen his like since Lindy Chamberlain.
Unlike Cardinal Pell Mrs Chamberlain was never acquitted at any stage of the criminal law process and she had to fight hard to obtain a full pardon and payment of compensation for what essentially boiled down to a malicious prosecution.
Cardinal Pell is better off than Mrs Chamberlain already and comparisons with her are not apt.
Ultimately it could be argued that the High Court has restored Cardinal Pell’s reputation as far as it can be and that further court process seeking an apology or damages is too little, too late or perhaps even unnecessary.