‘Three cheers for the police’ a large woman in a flesh-pink puffer jacket shouted as eight rozzers in blue and yellow came through the revolving doors of the County Court, and formed a corridor.
‘Hip hip hooray!’ the woman shouted.
She got half a response from the two hundred or so people gathered in the forecourt—mainly those in blue, red and yellow from CLAN, the activist group around victims of abuse in orphanages. The rest was journalists and crews, talking on phones, checking tripods.
Thirty minutes after George Pell’s sentence had come down—six years, three years eight months without parole—and we were all still waiting around. Pell had been loaded up at the back entrance and taken away—‘he didn’t have his collar on, he didn’t have his order of Australia medal’ one CLAN member told the others, after she’d come out with the others from the visitor’s gallery—and now we were waiting for the final act: Robert Richter’s walk to the traffic lights and back to chambers. There was no point staying. But no-one really wanted to go.
Thirty minutes earlier eighty or so court people, journos, crew had been gathered round a tiny portable screen – Lilliput, its improbable brand name, at the bottom—listening to, watching Justice Peter Kidd sentence George Pell, taking an hour or so to recount the crimes of which he is convicted—sexual penetration of a thirteen year old, sexual assault of another, another assault a month after that—in 1996 in St Patrick’s Cathedral, the principles of sentencing, the factors therein. A grey day, the first grey day of the year, grey clouds over the grey County Court, the ugliest building in Melbourne, its useless overhang that condenses and drips water on those going in and out. Near the coffee cart, the crowd grew, squeezed in.
Over here, suits, smart shirts, the TV journos young, fit, pancake made-up, like the cast of a high-school musical. Over there, the CLAN people, old, lined, scrappy hair, shabby in coloured windcheaters, crazy hats, many badges. They wanted to listen in too, but their organisers kept them lined up, with their signs—the Christian Brothers were Sadists, Pellophile, Save Us From the Salvation Army—for the news cameras of the world.
‘For the first charge I am sentencing you…’ At the Lilliput screen we tensed, people on their haunches, rising to hear, like some sort of demented reversal of a Melbourne Cup. The tension was unbearable, weirdly, shockingly, like sex. ‘Two years, four years, two years six, eighteen months…’. The four years as the base sentence, sections of the others added, for a total of six years. Three years eight months without parole. With remand and the two weeks since conviction, three years and a bit. Appeal in June.
‘Six years! Six years!’ Producers yelled to journos, crews scrambled back to set-ups, a delayed half-cheer from the CLAN crew, listening around a transistor radio. ‘More than I thought’ said one producer. ‘He should have got ten!’ a CLAN member yelled. Ten was what they wanted, the magic double figures. That was never going to happen. But six is a little more than might have been expected. Now they were telling their stories to global media, Reuters, El Pais. ‘I was in … ,‘ said one. Some institution, charitable from the outside, a charnel house from within. I watched the CLAN people go to the edge of the forecourt to smoke, the only smokers here. All of us in grey, black, blue over here, in media, in power, people with lives. Them over there, in their colours, sucking on gaspers, a broken rainbow, scattered over the pavement. Hard not to think that the lined skin, the fraying hair, the fags, the yellow teeth, the agitation, is not part of what they’re protesting about, lives crushed at the root. The colours, clownish, are resistance I guess, assertion of a human right to be joyous, refusal of the shadow.
By twenty minutes in, the buzz of the sentence was wearing off. ‘Three years! His victims got life!’ Someone held up a photo poster, black and white, four small girls, eight, nine years old? In a line scrubbing a floor of some place sometime back. I felt a sadness grow in me, to the roots of finger-and toenails, the waste, the destruction, the sadism, how many decades of it? Priests with no vocation having their way, nuns that were spare daughters shoved into convents, taking out their frustrations for a life denied. The systemisation of it, the thickening of grace into its other, the wilful idiocy of its late-stage defenders. To turn the sexual being of a child and the adult he or she becomes into a site of pain is to build a hell in heaven’s despite. In modernity, the Roman Catholic church became the industrial manufactory of the torment it purported to offer salvation from.
George Pell was not being convicted or sentenced for the sins of the Church, Justice Kidd had noted. Not in the court, but out here, in the public square, it was impossible not to feel the full weight of history come down, Da Vinci Code lines bouncing inside my head. This was the descendent of the Borgias, of Julius II, of the Apostles really, convicted in a county court as far from Rome as it is possible to be on this planet, and sent to that distinctive modern torment, protective confinement in the grey walls and functional fittings of a solitary cell. Not as a defender of the faith, but as a paedo, a nonce, a rock spider. This was an event so epochal, so momentous, it seemed impossible to feel its import, its momentousness, in this no-space, a building that refused all glory, evoked nothing.
‘He’s coming’ a camo yelled from the high point he was standing on up the back. The police lined up, cheered afresh, a diminishing note. White-haired, black-clad, a drypoint sketch, Robert Richter SC charged through the revolving door and towards William Street. The journos surged. He made his way steadily through the cop corridor. It was like some bizarre wedding with no bride. Behind some from CLAN and others heckled, holding the ‘Pellophile’ sign high. Richter pushed forward, almost pinned down by the media crowd. Behind, ‘Rot in hell paedophiles!’ ‘How can you sleep at night!’ the protestors’ voices small in the melee. Universal right to a defence is right. Richter was right to take the case. But they were right to heckle him. Absolute refusal of consent to something by those who never got the chance before.
Fifteen minutes later, they were all gone, the crews packing up, the next cases coming on, barristers arriving at the coffee cart, clients in ironed t-shirts and clean trainers smoking on the pavement. It is still not over. Come June and beyond, we’ll all be back for the appeal, the absolute end of it. That will be the moment. Whether it is denied or upheld, and for very different reasons, the curtain will tear, and the heavens will open.