Blind obedience and the Pell trial jury

While I was training to be a Jesuit in the late 70s, I learned about, and practised, ‘blind obedience’. I recall being told that if something appeared black but the superior said it was white, we were to put aside our own perceptions and reasoning and believe that it was white.

Rightly or wrongly, what I learned about blind obedience has informed my understanding of how juries work in the court system. Once a jury is properly constituted and successfully reaches its verdict according to the rules of the judiciary, we are to put aside our own opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused, in order to accept that the jury verdict represents the truth.

There will always be arguments to counter the jury’s conclusion, but we must either accept the truth of its verdict or keep our contrary reasoning and opinions to ourselves and our inner circles, out of respect for the rule of law that underpins the social order.

That is why I was dismayed last year when several prominent church related legal experts, and one archbishop, went public with their opinions contradicting the jury verdict. They all had the added authority of being respected community leaders, so I felt that their undermining of the credibility of the jury was especially threatening to the social order.

I thought that the right place for them to air their views was behind closed doors or within legal circles. I imagined that their opinions about the evidence of the witness might find their way into the minds of appeal judges in a manner that was not public, and I felt there was no harm in that.

I could appreciate the logic in their assertions, but to my mind it was not their place to raise doubts that would undermine public confidence in the rule of law.

In line with the principle of blind obedience, we all try to align our thinking with jury’s conclusion, again for the sake of the order of society. I remember writing the following while processing and reaching a positive assessment of the Pell jury verdict in my own mind:

The more I read about the fragmentary and therefore ‘unreliable’ nature of human memory, the more I’m convinced that the form or demeanour of a testifying witness can be more telling than the verbal content of his or her testimony.

Convinced as I was of my own opinion, and that jury verdicts are sacred, I’m now struggling to bring my mind around to conform with the judgment of the High Court, in the spirit of blind obedience.