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Peter FitzSimmons, George Pell, bias and group think. · 3 March 2019

Peter FitzSimons has written that it is an “undeniable fact” that Pell is guilty” (“Doubter’s outcry over Pell verdict disrespectful to jury, legal system”, Sydney Morning Herald). He adds that “to the rest of the community, it is extraordinarily disrespectful to the jury members who, after weighting all the evidence, listening to all the testimony, came to the conclusion that he was guilty.” He then quotes Judge Kidd in support of the jury decision: “He did it. He engaged is some shocking conduct against two boys. I’m not making guesses about what else he might have done as King of the Castle.”

Perhaps because I presently live in Russia and have read a lot of Russian history, I find the secrecy attached to this trial very unnerving. Secret evidence in trials is, deservedly, criticized in other countries, but seems to be acceptable in the Pell case.

There are several other points worth noting. If it was in a Russian court, there would be much criticism of a judge speaking as Kidd did when he strongly implied that Pell has committed other crimes as “King of the Castle” without giving any evidence. It would smack of a political show trial.

There is also the question of “group think”. We know nothing about the composition of the jury, their possible prejudices or level of intelligence. But it is easy to imagine that several conditions existed for group think. These include insulation of the jury group, belief in their inherent morality vis-à-vis Pell (and possibly the Catholic Church more generally), directive leadership (which Kidd may have at least implicitly given throughout the trial and thus effectively joined the anti-Pell ingroup, before later making it explicitly clear what his views were), and probably high stress brought about by the need to come to a decision. We do not know about the cohesiveness of the jury group nor any pressure that there may have been on dissenters.

Groups like this can become impervious to rational argument. And, it can happen in plain sight for all to see. A US Senate Intelligence Committee identified group think as one of the factors that led the Bush Administration (and many supposedly independent, but in reality ingroup, analysts) to claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (and invade that country) despite all the objective evidence to the contrary. We now see some similar thinking in the Putin led Russian government’s attitudes to the US.

I have no idea whether Pell is guilty or innocent, but the words of Kidd and the possibilities for group think raise lots of suspicions.

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