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Millions of words, protests, petitions, a crescendo of vile accusations. Decades of service to the poor and underprivileged submerged beneath the vulgar speculation of strangers. It is difficult to imagine what misery Australia's Governor-General has suffered in recent months; harder still to fathom why anyone would endure such torment when a swift, discreet resignation might have brought it to an end.

The pressure is relentless. Child-abuse interest groups salivate at the prospect of a kill, in the tragic hope that a high-profile scalp will ease their pain. A majority of Australians, if opinion polls are to be believed, now agree that Hollingworth should go, claiming that his sins are so serious that the office and the man are indelibly tainted. Even moderate commentators urge the Governor-General's resignation. He has lost the people's confidence, they say, shaking their heads in sorrow; the honorable course is to bend to their will.

But Western democracies have elaborate and venerated systems in place to see that the will of the people is enacted. Australians pride themselves - and with good cause - on the durability and fairness of these institutions. They know they are protected by a legal system that operates on the principle that everyone is equal before the law. Measured against the importance of defending this principle, the acts or omissions of the Governor-General are utterly insignificant.

The rules of evidence and court procedure were not developed by accident; nor were they rushed through parliament in a cynical attempt to help Hollingworth escape justice. Their evolution, over centuries, reflects an acute historical awareness of the anarchy that lies in wait for those who relax or abandon them, no matter how seemingly pure the reasons for doing so. Those rules are predicated on the certain knowledge that mob justice is no justice at all. There can be few with liberty or reputation at stake who would exchange the rigors of the courtroom for a show of hands smeared with the ink of the tabloids.

Hollingworth admits he made serious errors of judgment in his pastoral work; if there are criminal acts among them let him face a jury. That admission should disqualify him from investigating charges of sexual misconduct by the clergy, but that is not one of the Governor-General's duties. If he makes errors of similar magnitude in his current role, let him be immediately dismissed.

It may be that Hollingworth should be ashamed of himself; so deeply ashamed, even, that he should resign. That is a matter for his conscience. As a priest he answers to God; as a man he answers to the law. Neither he, nor anyone else, should have to answer to the mob. And if he does eventually resign, some Australians may consider that Hollingworth's alleged misconduct has tainted the office of Governor-General far less than this hysterical and vicious pursuit has stained their nation.