Why Die Hard Still Delivers
It would not be controversial to claim that Die Hard is one of the most influential action films of all time. With its perfectly constructed story and charismatic characters, Die Hard has remained popular over three decades after its initial release. Whilst it may be easy to chalk this success up to a mere quirk of fate, I believe it is a result of its careful use of plot and character.
The first thing worth noting about Die Hard is that it gets the rudimentary aspects of cinematic storytelling right. The stakes are raised at very precise moments giving the film a very measured pace. Furthermore, Die Hard adheres to the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Director John McTiernan gives the viewer small snippets of information which they can use to tell themselves the story. This makes the movie far more satisfying because it makes the viewer feel like they are participating in the action.
The second thing worth noting is that Die Hard was intended to be a fun, joy-filled Christmas movie. Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” runs as a musical theme throughout the film. Themes of family, reconciliation, and redemption occur over and over again. Finally, the opening of the vault, caused inadvertently by the FBI, is treated as a kind of Christmas miracle. It is impossible to watch Die Hard without having a good time.
The third thing worth noting is the magnificent array of memorable characters that Die Hard boasts. The film’s hero, John McClane is an ordinary, flesh-and-blood human being – a far cry from the muscle-bound action heroes of the 1980s. He is the wise-cracking descendant of John Wayne or Gary Cooper who has had to face his fear of flying in order to travel to Los Angeles and repair his relationship with his wife, Holly. What makes McClane so endearing as a character is that he never allows himself to be beaten, no matter how seemingly insurmountable the obstacles placed in front of him.
Finally, there is Hans Gruber, played to perfection by the Shakespearean actor, Alan Rickman. On the one hand, Gruber is a coldly-calculating sociopath who has not only planned every aspect of his scheme down to the necessity of the FBI’s involvement, but also a quick thinker capable of adapting to any change in situation. On the other hand, he is a pretentious narcissist with a penchant for expensive suits and misquoting Plutarch (“when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”). Yet regardless of Gruber’s flaws (or, perhaps, strengths), we cannot help but want to be a member of his crew.
Die Hard has remained one of the most popular action films of the past thirty-five-years because it got the basics right. First, it is a joyous, Christmas movie that makes the audience feel like they are a part of the action. Second, every character, from Al Powell and the henchman to Gruber and McClane, are all memorable. Storytellers have much to learn from Die Hard.
A Few Reflections on Adolf Hitler
I have just finished reading, Hitler: Ian Kershaw’s brilliant, two-volume biography on Adolf Hitler. Over the course of 1432 pages, Kershaw uncovers why Hitler, a man not all too dissimilar from other tyrants in history, has become synonymous with evil.
Kershaw also reveals the gap between Hitler’s public image and private personality. He reveals the difference between the rabble rouser capable of captivating the masses by exploiting their fears, prejudices, and desires, and the lacklustre reality. Kershaw shows how Hitler transformed Nazism into a national religion – complete with its own songs, fables, and rituals – and how he transformed himself into its demagogue.
Hitler projected a persona that embodied all the ideals of German nationalism. He presented himself as the archetype of German pride, efficiency, and self-discipline. In Hitler, the German people found the living embodiment of their fears and aspirations.
Furthermore, Hitler presented himself as the saviour of a nation on the brink of ruin. This was not entirely his doing, by the early-thirties things had grown so dire in Germany that people were willing to throw their lot in with anyone promising to restore law, order, and honour. Hitler promised all that and more. Utilising what we today would recognise as identity politics, Hitler promised to restore national pride and wreak vengeance on Germany’s enemies. He divided the world into victims (the German people), perpetrators (international Jewry and Marxists), and saviours (the Nazis).
It would be far too simplistic, however, to conclude that Hitler brainwashed the German people. Rather, Hitler and the German people became intertwined in the same unconscious conspiracy. Hitler may have been the one to espouse the kind of murderous ideas that led to Auschwitz and Stalingrad, but it was the German people who gave those ideas their full, unconscious support. As time marched on, Hitler’s sycophancy was taken as political genius.
By telling the German people what they wanted to hear, Hitler was able to present himself as a national saviour. The reality was far different. He was a man with virtually no personality. He had no connection whatsoever with ordinary people. He never held an ordinary job, never had children, and only married his mistress, Eva Braun, the day before his suicide. Albert Speer, the Nazi architect and one of the few men Hitler counted as a friend, described him as a duplicitous, insecure individual who surrounded himself with shallow and incompetent people, laughed at the misfortunes of others, and retreated into “fantastic mis-readings” or reality.
Furthermore, whilst Hitler presented himself as the hardworking political demagogue of unmatched genius, he was, in reality, a lazy, egotistical man whose rise to power rested on the cynical manipulation of national institutions. Far from being the tireless worker he presented himself to be, Hitler actually proved unable to deal with numerous major crises during the War because he was still asleep. He saw his role as being the creator of Nazi ideology. The actual running of Germany he left to his functionaries.
When Hitler toured Paris following the fall of France in 1940, he made a special visit to the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. Saluting the Emperor’s marble tomb, Hitler commented, in typical egotistical style that like Napoleon his tomb would only bear the name “Adolf” because “the German people would know who it was.”
He was not entirely wrong. The name Adolf Hitler is remembered today. However, far from being remembered as the founder of a thousand-year Reich, he is remembered as a genocidal fruitcake whose legacy is as inglorious as his life. Hitler and Napoleon may have been similar in many ways (both were foreigners to the countries they would end up ruling, both reigned for a short period of time, and both significantly altered the course of history), but where Napoleon left a legacy that is still very much with today, Hitler failed to leave anything of lasting significance
But perhaps that is precisely what Hitler wanted. Carl Jung has a dictum: if you want to understand someone’s motivations for doing something, look at the outcome and infer the motivation. In his brief twelve-years in power, Hitler led the German people into a war that cost fifty-million lives, presided over a Holocaust that murdered eleven million people, and oversaw the destruction of the old Europe. If Adolf Hitler could be summarised in a single quote, the line from the ancient Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita would prove sufficient: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The Silence of the Lambs and the Problem of Evil
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth to modern serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer (1960 – 1994), history and literature has been filled with stories of savage and inhuman evil. Those acts of evil that have most captured our imaginations have been those committed out of resentment, sexual frustration, ideology, or religious belief.
Carl Panzram’s (1891 – 1930) murderous rampage was fuelled by the resentment he felt over the poor treatment he had experienced as a child. The Neo-Nazi and Marquis De Sade devotee, Ian Brady (1938 – 2017) murdered five people with his girlfriend, Myra Hindley (1942 – 2002). Ted Bundy (1946 – 1989) expressed his dark fantasies by raping and murdering dozens of young women. And Richard Ramirez (1960 – 2013) presided over a sixteen-month reign of terror, was dubbed “the Night Stalker”, and claimed to worship Satan.
The 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs explores the dark corners of the human psyche from which such evil emerges. Its two principle antagonists, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), are motivated to commit their crimes for purely psychological reasons. They are not motivated by money or power or sex.
Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill are able to rationalise their behaviour because they do not see their victims as human beings. Since they are both materialists (that pernicious philosophy that supposes all phenomena is composed of material elements and material interacts), they fail to see the spirit infused within the flesh and bone of a human being. It never occurs to them that there may be more to their victims than just their corporeal form.
Buffalo Bill mistakenly believes himself to be transgender. In reality, years of systematic abuse has made him hate his own identity. And because he is a materialist, he has come to believe that he can change his identity by fashioning the skin of his female victims. He believes that he can possess the power he perceives women to have because, in his mind, all there is to being a woman is having breasts and long hair.
Hannibal Lecter doesn’t believer in the human spirit, either. As a psychiatrist and an intellectual, he is driven by an incessant need to consume people on an intellectual level. Once he has finished consuming them intellectually, he kills them so he can consume them physically.
Lecter is the modern intellectual par excellence. However, his appreciation of the intellectual and the aesthetic are rendered insufficient by his lack of warmth and humanity. As the crime novelist, Andrew Klavan (1954 – ) wrote in City Journal:
“The name Hannibal Lecter implies – as the fictional killer’s behaviour illustrates – that the modern intellectual (lector means “reader” in Latin) has become, like Hannibal of old, a threat to Western civilisation.”
Stories of evil have captivated the human imagination ever since our ancestors began telling stories. The Silence of the Lambs reveals the limitations of the materialist philosophy and highlights the evil that it can create. As a consequence, it has joined a great pantheon of stories by standing as a testament of what happens we reduce mankind down to mere flesh and bone.
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) vs. The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Hollywood has been remaking movies since the beginning. And with a few notable exceptions, most of these films have failed to capture the magic of the original. Even today directors seem convinced that they can produce Hollywood magic by creating an endless array of sequels, remakes, and reboots. Nevertheless, there still exists that rare category of film screaming to be remade.
One such movie is The Thomas Crown Affair. Neither the 1968 original nor the 1999 remake manages to surpass the other. Whilst the original excels at style and sexual tension, it is overshadowed by the remake’s plot and music score. Both films are essentially “style” movies. They rely heavily upon atmosphere to draw in an audience. The cool jazz of the 1999 remake is a massive improvement over the original. There can be no denying that Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” is better suited to the film than the original’s “Windmills of Your Mind.”
But what the remake wins in music, it loses in style and sex appeal. From Faye Dunaway’s wardrobe to Steve McQueen’s three-piece suits, the style of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) has become an iconic part of 20th century style. The tailored suits and designer skirts lend themselves to the film’s upmarket atmosphere and help enhance the sexual tension, which is far more palpable here despite the remake’s decision to show more explicit sex.
The 1999 film makes enormous improvements on the original’s plot. In the original film, the audience is never granted a satisfactory explanation as to why a wealthy, sophisticated gentleman would waste his time organising a bank robbery (the explanation that he does it for kicks barely passes muster). In the remake, the director, John McTiernan and the screenwriters, Leslie Dixon and Kurt Wimmer, decide to make Crown an art thief. It is a crime that makes Crown seem intelligent, cultured, and sympathetic.
At the centre of both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair is the relationship between Thomas Crown and Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway)/ Catherine Banning (Rene Russo). In the original film, Crown and Vicki compete as equals causing a sexual tension to pulsate through the entire film. Similarly, in the remake Crown and Banning act as mirror images of one another. Unlike the original, however, the sexual tension quickly fizzles out when the pair form a romantic attachment to one another. At this moment, the erotically-charged battle of wits is replaced with a soap opera-style romance that is, frankly, embarrassing to watch.
In both versions of the film, Thomas Crown is presented as an elegant, sophisticated alpha-male who amassed his wealth thanks to a shrewd business mind and a willingness to take extreme risks. When Crown isn’t making multi-million-dollar deals at the corporate board table, he’s pursing hobbies like polo, gliding, yachting, and golf.
Both Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan portray Thomas Crown as a bored millionaire playboy: the type of man with an almost insatiable need for adrenaline. There are, however, marked differences in the way each actor portrays the character. Steve McQueen plays Crown with the kind of roguish charm that made him the “King of Cool” in the sixties and seventies. By contrast, Pierce Brosnan plays Crown as a charmer, the kind of man who feels comfortable in country clubs and golf courses because he’s lived around them his entire life.
As mentioned before, competing against Thomas Crown are the insurance investigators Vicki Anderson and Catherine Banning. Both are largely similar characters. Both have resided in Europe, both are sophisticates, and both come to suspect Thomas Crown merely because they find him attractive. In terms of characterisation, Catherine Banning is certainly the more nuanced of the two.
There is one area, however, where Vicki Anderson excels over Catherine Banning. Sex appeal. At the age of forty-five, Rene Russo (who, it must be said, is a perfectly fine actress) looks too old to be playing the part of a sultry sex kitten who is supposed to be the source of all men’s fantasies. (Faye Dunaway, by contrast, was only twenty-seven and looks every part the sex kitten). Better choices would have been Sharon Stone, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kim Basinger, Kate Winslet, Emanuelle Béart, and Monica Bellucci.
In 2016, Variety reported that Michael B. Jordan was set to star in a second remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. Those wishing to remake the film should heed the following advice. They should combine McQueen and Brosnan’s portrayals of Crown to create a character a witty, urbane, charming, and roguish anti-hero. They should retain the style and sex appeal of the original film, but follow the remake’s lead when it comes to music and plot. And, finally, they should make absolutely certain that they cast the right actress as the female lead. Only then will we get the film we truly deserve.
Stop Getting Bond Wrong: A Review of Never Say Never Again
Fans of the James Bond film series remember 1983 as the year that brought two James Bond movies to the silver screen. The so-called “Battle of the Bonds” pitched the official EON Produced Octopussy against the unofficial Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again. But aside from the obvious contest between Sean Connery and Roger Moore, how should Never Say Never Again be regarded?
Fundamentally, Never Say Never Again ought to be compared to its contemporaries. By the late-seventies, early-eighties, the quality of the Bond films had become inconsistent. EON seemed incapable of deciding whether they wanted to produce thrillers or action comedies. Thus, for every The Spy Who Loved Me, there was a Moonraker.
None of this is to say that Never Say Never Again is a good movie. Ultimately, it is an average movie – and a bad James Bond movie. Part of the problem is that the film cannot decide whether it wants to be a “Bond” movie or not. There are clear attempts to emulate the official Bond series. Bond asks for a “vodka martini, shaken not stirred”, Lani Hall’s song “Never Say Never Again” replaces the traditional title song, and it is hard not to see the superimposed “007” logo at the start of the movie as anything less than a substitute for a gun-barrel.
The film’s plot is average, at best. Never Say Never Again’s plot mirrors that of Thunderball. Bond is sent to track down the whereabouts two nuclear bombs stolen by SPECTRE. Along the way he encounters the beautiful Domino, a femme fatale in the form of Fatima Blush, and the psychotic Maximilian Largo. There is plenty of sex and violence, and the film ends with Bond recovering the bombs and saving the day.
Despite making some minor improvements, Never Say Never Again fails to live up to its source material – both literary and cinematic. The film is filled with the kind of ridiculous shenanigans that could make Moore’s adventures so unbearable for fans of the Connery era. It is not possible to alter your eye to match someone else’s. Not now, and certainly not in 1983. The sequence with the remote-control sharks pushes the suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point. And Bond’s presence in the Bahamas serves absolutely no purpose.
Most of the film’s characters are boring and one-dimensional. James Bond (Sean Connery) is presented as a veteran character ravished by time (and an extremely poor lifestyle). But even this isn’t wholly original. Both For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy had leant into Roger Moore’s advancing years. The difference was that Moore’s Bond was presented as an elder stateman: a wiser, more dignified man who mostly pursues relationships with age-appropriate women. Connery’s elder Bond is merely an older version of Connery’s younger Bond, just with greyer hair.
The film’s most interesting character is its villain, Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer). Largo is a man who appears personable, even charming, on the surface. This affable facade, however, hides the psychotic individual lurking just beneath the surface. The film critic, Roger Ebert praised Brandauer’s decision not to turn Largo into a cliché. It is a compliment I largely agree with. Brandauer’s sense of subtle evil is far more menacing that Adolfo Celli’s Emilio Largo in Thunderball.
After Largo, the film’s most interesting character is Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera). She is a manic psychopath – a Class A lunatic who dances in joy after she’s killed people, keeps snakes as pets, and pursues Largo as a romantic interest. Even then, Fatima Blush does not possess the same level of nuanced malevolence that Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe possessed. Blush may not be Lady Macbeth, but she’s certainly fun to watch.
By contrast, the most boring character in the movie is Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger). The only thing that defines her as a human being is her troubled relationship with Largo (which is handled better here than in Thunderball). Their relationship is defined by Largo’s possessiveness and punctuated by his pathological bouts of paranoid jealousy. He refers to her as his possession and even tells her that he will kill her if she tries to leave him.
The biggest downfall of the film, however, is that it represents a missed opportunity. Those who watch the film know they are not getting a regular James Bond movie. The film’s director, Kevin McClory could have used this as justification to do something original with James Bond. He could have revived the danger, conviction, and sex appeal of the original films by making Never Say Never Again more ruthlessly violent and sexually explicit. McClory could have chosen to produce a film along the lines of From Russia with Love or The Day of the Jackal. Instead he chose to produce a bland James Bond movie.
George Pell Reveals Serious Violations in Australian Law
One of the most common misconceptions is that justice means getting what you want. It is a misconception that is not only wrong, but one that also carries the very real risk of perverting the course of justice. As the legal farce against Cardinal George Pell has proven: when such a belief is commonly held, it can lead to the imprisonment of innocent people and the disgrace of the entire legal system.
The Pell legal fiasco involved two trials and two appeals which culminated in George Pell’s conviction for historic child sex abuse being overturned by the High Court of Australia. The two trials began in August 2018 in the Victorian County Court. Pell pleaded not guilty to all charges. The first trial ended in a mistrial after the jury proved unable to deliver a verdict. The second trial ended in a guilty predict.
After his sentencing, Pell’s defence team appealed to Victoria’s Appeals Court. They argued that Pell’s conviction “could not be supported by the whole of the evidence” and that, therefore, no reasonable jury could have found him guilty. It was an unusual approach. Most appeals will attempt to overturn a jury verdict by arguing that the trial judge failed to properly instruct the jury. Pell’s defence team, on the other hand, were claiming that the jury itself made the error. In order to show that the jury verdict was “not open”, Pell’s defence team had to show that the evidence presented at trial “precluded a guilty verdict.” As the Court of Appeals stated:
“Where the unreasonableness ground is relied upon, the task for the appeal court is to decide whether, on the whole of the evidence, it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty.
The inquiry which this ground requires is a purely factual one, rather than a discrete question of law where the agreement is that the trial judge has made an error. When the reasonableness ground is relied upon, the appeal court reviews the evidence as it was presented to the jury. The appeal court asks itself whether – on that factual material – it was unreasonably open to the jury to convict the accused.”
According to the Court of Appeal’s review, the prosecution’s case rested on the argument that the accuser was a credible witness upon whom the jury could justify a guilty verdict. This view was shared by both Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Justice Chris Maxwell:
“Throughout his evidence, [the complainant] came across as someone who was telling the truth. He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution. As might have been expected, there were somethings which he could remember and many things which he could not. And his explanations of why that was so had the ring of truth.”
Conversely, both Ferguson and Maxwell judged that there was justifiable reason to doubt the testimonies of the “opportunity witnesses” whose testimonies contradicted the prosecution’s case. Ferguson and Maxwell both found that “the evidence of the opportunity witnesses varied greatly in quality and consistency, and in the degree of recall, both as witnesses and within the evidence of individual witnesses.” They argued that the repetition of events combined with the lengthy passage of time had conspired to put the validity of their testimonies under question. Incredibly, both Ferguson and Maxwell were willing to accept the accuser’s testimony as a true and accurate version of events even though their reasons for discounting the testimonies of the opportunity witnesses could be applied just as easily to him as it could to the others.
The Victorian Court of Appeals upheld Pell’s conviction with a two-to-one majority. The lone dissenter, Justice Mark Weinberg delivered a two-hundred-and-four-page dissent statingthat “in light of the unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses, the odds against [A’s] account of how the abuse occurred, would have to be substantial.” Weinberg did not believe that the prosecution had successfully discounted the testimonies of the “opportunity witnesses” and concluded that a reasonable jury would not have been able to reach a verdict of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Unperturbed, Pell’s defence team applied to appeal to the High Court. It was granted because the highest court in the land believed there was sufficient argument to suggest that Pell had been convicted on insufficient evidence. Pell’s defence team based their appeal on the argument that Pell’s conviction could not be supported by the evidence and that the Court of Appeals had misapplied the legal test by requiring him to prove that the offending was impossible.
According to the High Court Summary, ‘A’ (the accuser is identified as ‘A’ in the High Court summary) testified that ‘B’ and himself had slipped out of the procession as it was approaching the metal gate to the toilet corridor. (A full description of both the layout of the Cathedral and the procession are contained within the High Court summary). From there they re-entered the Cathedral through the door to the south transept, made their way into the sacristy corridor, slipped into the Priest’s sacristy, and partook in a bottle of red communion wine. ‘A’ alleged that Pell caught them, exposed his penis, orally raped ‘A’, and forced his to remove him trousers so he could fondle his genitals. At this stage both ‘A’ and ‘B’ were crying and Pell is alleged to have told them to be quiet. ‘A’ further claimed that Pell re-assaulted him a month later by pushing him up against a wall and fondling his genitals.
The Court of Appeals had found ‘A’ to be a credible witness, partly because he had knowledge of the interior layout of both the interior of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Priest’s sacristy. (Clearly it didn’t occur to them that he could have attained such knowledge without being abused). There are, however, two problems with ‘A’s testimony. The first concerns the lack of opportunity Pell would have had to commit the crime without being caught. If ‘A’, the prosecution, Ferguson, and Maxwell are to be believed, Pell was a brazen enough offender to molest two choir boys directly after Sunday Mass when the chances of getting caught would have been extremely high.
The second concerns the time of the offending. The prosecution placed the date range for the alleged offending between December 15th and 22nd 1996 for the first offence and February 23rd for the second offence. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was closed for renovations between Easter and November 1996. After it was reopened, Pell officiated two Sunday masses there – December 15th and 22nd December and presided over, though he did not celebrate, Sunday solemn mass on February 23rd, 1997. During this time, renovations to the Archbishop’s sacristy forced him to use the Priest’s sacristy, further enhancing the likelihood of getting caught.
It should come as little surprise that High Court found major inconsistencies between the way the Court of Appeals regarded the accuser’s testimony and the way they regarded the testimony of the “opportunity witnesses”:
“The Court of Appeal majority’s treatment of what their Honours rightly identified as the critical issue in the case was wrong for two reasons. First, Portelli’s evidence was unchallenged. Secondly, their Honours were required to reason in a manner that is consistent with the way in which a jury would be directed in accordance with the Jury Direction Act 2015 (Vic). Their Honours were required to take into account the forensic disadvantage experienced by the applicant arising from the delay of some 20 years in being confronted with these allegations. Their Honours, however, reasoned to satisfaction of the applicant’s guilt by discounting a body of evidence that raised lively doubts as to the commission of the offences because they considered the likelihood that the memories of honest witnesses might have been affected by delay.”
The testimony of Monsignor Charles Portelli, the former Master of Ceremonies, was of particular interest to the High Court. As Master of Ceremonies, Portelli’s duties included meeting Pell when he arrived at the Cathedral, assisting him with his vestments, and so on. Portelli testified that the two occasions Pell celebrated Mass in December 1996 were memorable because of the large number of people who wanted to meet Pell. He recalled standing beside Pell during the procession and seeing Pell hand his mitre and crosier to two altar boys whilst he stood at the west door greeting congregants. During the cross examination, Portelli stated that whilst it was possible that Pell only remained at the west door greeting people for a couple of minutes, he did not remember it. Furthermore, Portelli testified that even if he had, Pell would have been accompanied by Max Potter or another Priest.
Sacristan Max Potter concurred with much of Portelli’s testimony. Potter claimed that Pell spent twenty minutes to half-an-hour greeting congregants. When asked he stated that whilst it was possible for Pell to have left earlier than normal, it would have been unlikely at first because “it took him [Pell] a while to readjust, and [he] stayed in there welcoming people for a couple of months in the Cathedral.” Potter also backed up Portelli’s assertion that Pell would not have returned to the Priest’s sacristy to remove his vestments alone. Furthermore, Potter stated that he unlocked the Priest’s sacristy as the procession was making its way down the centre aisle and that he gave congregants five to six minutes to pray in the sanctuary before he and the altar servers removed the sacred vessels, a task that generally took around a quarter-of-an-hour.
Potter was suffering memory issues during Pell’s trial. In particularly, his testimony makes it unclear as to when exactly he unlocked the Priest’s sacristy. Other witnesses, however, also testified in Pell’s favour. Both Doctor Cox, the assistant organist, and Peter Finnigan, the choir marshal, recalled the Priest’s sacristy being a “hive of activity” following the Mass. Likewise, Jeffrey Connor and McGlone, both of whom were altar servers at the time, stated that they could recall no occasion in which the Priest’s sacristy had been left either unlocked or unattended. They testified that Potter had been waiting to unlock the Priest’s sacristy so they could bow to the crucifix and complete their duties.
Connor wrote of Pell’s “invariable” practice of greeting congregants on the steps of the Cathedral in his personal diary. Connor testified that he had never seen Pell alone whilst wearing his vestments, and that if he had the event would certainly have been memorable. McGlone concurred with Connor’s version of events testifying that he understood the Archbishop’s vestments were sacred and that certain prayers had to be said as they were being donned or removed. McGlone recalled he and his mother having a brief interaction with Pell.
The High Court unanimously concluded that no reasonable jury, working to the standard that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, could find George Pell guilty. They found that the possibility of reasonable doubt arising from the unchallenged evidence of multiple witnesses should have prompted the jury to entertain the possibility of reasonable doubt. As a result, they overturned Pell’s conviction.
It is not difficult to see Pell as a casualty of the broader culture war – the ideological conflict over the fate of western culture – that has enveloped modern society. Pell’s outspoken traditionalism and fervent Catholicism combined with his contentious views on gay marriage, the morning-after pill, and the ordination of women has made him persona non grata for many social groups. Combine this with the Catholic Church’s admittedly abysmal response to child sex abuse allegations, and it isn’t hard to see why Pell was targeted. It is as though they thought they could punish the Church by convicting Pell.
It should go without saying that the sexual abuse of a child, whether it is committed by a stranger, a scoutmaster, or a Catholic Cardinal is abhorrent. It is more than reasonable to hold child abusers accountable for their crimes. However, it is more important to uphold those principles upon which our legal system is based. It is these principles that have allowed us to live in freedom and (relative) prosperity for as long as we have.
Although most people recognise the necessity of legal protections against miscarriages of justice, many do not believe that these protections should extend to people accused of sex crimes. There is an alarming trend where politicians attempt to use the spectre of child abuse to curry favour with the public. In many cases, these attempts involve violating time honoured legal principles. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, for example, has made several recommendations that state governments have only been too eager to lap up. Among the Royal Commission’s recommendations have been the abolition of statutory limitations on child sex abuse allegations and reformations to evidence law so juries can learn more about a defendant’s past.
In 2020, Victoria’s Attorney General, Martin Pakula introduced the Limitations of Actions Amendment (Child Abuse) Act 2015 which exempted cases where injuries had been acquired from the psychological, physical, or sexual abuse of a minor from the usual statutory limitations. Similarly, the Conversation reported in February 2020 that the New South Wales government had introduced a new would that would “make it easier for a jury to be informed about the prior convictions of a person on trial for a sex offence.” Similar laws are expected to be introduced in Victoria, Tasmania, the Northern Territory, and the Australian Capital Territory.
These blatant violations of western legal jurisprudence have emerged from a pernicious belief that all who claim to have been sexually abused must be telling the truth. Pell’s lone accuser perfectly summarised this view in his statement following the High Court’s decision:
“I respect the decision of the High Court. I respect the outcome. I understand their view that there was not enough evidence to satisfy the court beyond all reasonable doubt that the offending occurred.
No one wants to live in a society where people can be imprisoned without due process and proper processes. This is a basic civil liberty. But the price we pay for weighting the system in favour of the accused is that many sexual offences against children go unpunished.”
Merely being accused of a crime does not make someone guilty. Our legal system requires that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt Weighting the system in the favour of the ‘victim’, as Pell’s accuser is suggesting, is no different than weighting the system in favour of the state. Under such circumstances a defendant would have no chance of defending himself against any charge brought against him.
Shortly after he was convicted, Anne Manne wrote in The Monthly that Pell’s conviction “enacted the dignity and power of the rule of law.” In reality, precisely the opposite happened. The rule of law is defined by the Australian Constitution Centre as “the idea that every person is subject to the laws of the land regardless of their status. It is the idea that you cannot be punished or have your rights affected other than in accordance with a law, and only after a breach of the law has been established in a court of law.” George Pell was treated with a special kind of vindictiveness because he was a Catholic Cardinal. He was not treated like everybody else.
The Rule of Law is supposed to be the opposite of the rule of power. It recognises that whilst it may be necessary to have leaders, no one individual ought to be master over his fellows. As Clive Staples Lewis once noted: “Aristotle said that some men were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” The Rule of Law is supposed to reflect the fact that Australia is a nation governed by law, not by rulers. The Australian legal system has tainted this principle by treating George Pell differently just because he is a Cardinal.
The George Pell legal fiasco has revealed deep corruption inside the Victorian legal establishment. When one considers the Supreme Court of Victoria and the Court of Appeals proclivity to ignore evidence that did not support the prosecution, the weakness of the prosecution’s case, and the relentless media witch hunt, it is hard not to think of the Pell trial as anything less than a calculated attempt to silence an outspoken conservative Cardinal. When cases like Pell’s come along, we should remind ourselves of that old Latin maxim: “let just be done though the heavens fall.”