So now we get to read what most of Australia, and the rest of the world, has known for months. George Pell has been convicted of five serious criminal offences involving the sexual abuse of young boys. Four counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of a child under 16 and one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16. The jury by their verdicts have announced for all the world to see that this so-called man of God is a child molester and sex offender of the worst type. The convictions raise many questions about religious hypocrisy, Papal indifference and blind faith.
But they raise many other questions about why now, months after the verdicts were delivered, are we permitted to read about them?
The Advertiser newspaper, and others, has often argued against suppression orders made by judges, particularly in criminal cases. Under the grandiose banner of “Your Right To Know” it has railed against the non-publication or the delayed publication of the identity of a person on trial. My response has been, and still is, that this is a fallacious and self-interested position adopted by the press under the populist guise of doing a public service.
The fallacy of their argument is immediately apparent once it is understood that the courts are, other than in exceptional circumstances, open to the public. Any person who feels that his “right to know” the identity of who is on trial is being abused can simply walk into any courtroom on any day and find out. He can even look on the court lists published daily in the precincts of the court. The true “right” that the press are demanding, is not the public’s right to know, but their own “right” to publish.
There are often good reasons for not releasing the name of an accused prior to trial or even, occasionally, prior to conviction.
But there can be no good reason for suppressing the name of an individual after he has been convicted of a crime. With his conviction he forfeits his reputation, often his freedom and his anonymity. Even if that individual is facing a future trial on other charges, that cannot be a sufficient reason to conceal the results of the first trial.
Why? Because our system can only function if we assume that juries listen to judges when they address them. If we assume otherwise, that is, that they ignore what a judge tells them, our system of trial by jury could never and should never be trusted. Yet judges always and routinely tell juries to ignore anything that they may have read or heard about the case from outside the courtroom – in the press, on television or on the internet.
If we assume, as we must, that juries listen to judicial warnings, then we must also assume that even if they have heard that the accused before them has been previously convicted, that they will be true to their oaths and decide only upon the evidence that is presented to them in court, in the current trial. To do otherwise would mean that only hermits or individuals without the capacity of memory could ever qualify to sit as jurors.