Cardinal George Pell and the Victims of Child Sexual Abuse in Victoria.

In the long and still unfinished search for justice, two agencies have been outstanding. The Victorian Police performed dogged investigatory work, and the Royal Commission over five years compiled damning evidence. On 12 November 2012, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox called for the establishment of a Royal Commission. He was a 30-year veteran in Newcastle, and wrote an open letter to the NSW Premier: “I can testify from my own experience that the church covers-up, silencing victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests.” None of that stops at the Victorian border. “The whole system needs to be exposed; the clergy covering up these crimes must be brought to justice and the network protecting paedophile priests dismantled” (quoted in David Marr, The Prince). Backed by many Labour party backbenchers, and federal centrist politicians, PM Julia Gillard, the country’s first woman leader, moved to establish a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Gillard faced constant misogynist attack from conservative figures, but did not flinch (Tony Abbott was ready to be photographed beside a huge poster, ‘Ditch the Bitch’). It was perhaps her ‘most lasting legacy’ (Louise Milligan, Cardinal). “It will change the nation”, Gillard claimed, as she left office.

The Commission revealed over 4,000 cases of alleged child abuse between 1950 and 2010, involving 1,880 perpetrators. The average age of the victims was 10.5 years for girls and 11.6 for boys. It took on average 33 years for them to come forward. And when they did they faced ‘obfuscation and cover-up’ and cold aloofness (Milligan). The Commission presented its final report to parliament on February 2017. But when Pell went on trial, 100 pages concerning what he knew about abuse within the Church were redacted, and not released publicly till May 2020.

Ireland is ‘the mother country of Australian Catholicism’. When a nine-year inquiry revealed ‘the rot in Ireland’, Pell was quick to claim that “Ireland is not Australia”. But by then, a new accountability had been opened in the approach to the Church in Australia, with the arrival of a well-trained, determined and secular police. The Melbourne Age published a police report accusing the Catholic church of protecting paedophiles, and showing no sympathy for victims. The Police linked 40 suicides in Victoria to ‘abuse by half a dozen priests and brothers’. Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson noted that investigations would uncover “many more deaths as a consequence of clergy sexual abuse” (Marr). In 2015 a former choirboy informed Victoria Police that he and another boy, now deceased, were sexually abused by Pell in the 1990s. In February 2016, it was publicly revealed that a Police taskforce was investigating Cardinal Pell for historical child abuse. In October detectives questioned him in Rome about a number of allegations, and on 29 June 2017 Pell was charged with historical sexual abuse offences.

On 15 August 2018, a trial into whether the Cardinal abused two choirboys when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, began in the state’s County Court. The offending allegedly occurred in the sacristy of the cathedral after a Sunday mass. After the jury was unable to agree, a second trial began on 7 November 2018. On 11 December that year a jury found him guilty of one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of indecent acts with or in the presence of a child. The court then placed a suppression order on the case, banning all reporting on the trial until a verdict was reached in another case (which the Director of Public Prosecutions subsequently dropped). On 26 February 2019 the suppression order was lifted and the guilty verdict made public. On 13 March, the County Court sentenced the Cardinal to six years’ jail. In August that year, the Victorian Court of Appeal unanimously rejected two of his grounds for appeal, and rejected another on a 2-1 decision. His convictions were upheld. But on 7 April 2020, the High Court of Australia quashed Pell’s convictions, and he was freed (Timeline, ABC News, 14 May 2020).

Pell’s rule was to ‘always hire the best’, so he employed ‘the nation’s most celebrated attack dog’, Robert Richter, who labelled the worst of the Cardinal’s alleged crimes in the sacristy as “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration”. When he begged the court to distinguish between the actions of the Church and Pell, Judge Kidd affirmed: “I am imposing a sentence on Cardinal Pell for what he did”. His conduct in ‘forcing his penis into the mouth’ of one choir boy, in the busy Sunday sacristy, “was permeated by staggering arrogance” and, significantly, by a “sense of impunity” (quoted in Marr). A new man, Bret Walker SC, ‘the most respected intellectual advocate at the Australian bar’, represented Pell for his Appeal. Much time was given to the word must in analysing the jury’s duty to entertain inherent doubts about the prosecution’s case: Walker sought to ‘tease out those doubts’ (Marr).

Victims and Perpetrators

The long quest for justice began with the testimony of the one surviving choirboy, and there is near unanimity on his representation. He was a “very compelling witness”, he was “clearly not a liar, not a fantasist, [but] a witness of truth”, in the words of the Chief Justice of Victoria, Anna Ferguson, and the President of the Court of Appeal, Chris Maxwell (Marr). The testimonies of victims were usually clear on the essentials. Julie Stewart was a small schoolgirl at Holy Family Doveton, where ‘the mad priest Peter Searson’, both a sadist and a ‘dangerous paedophile’, operated, under Pell, the Auxiliary Bishop. Awareness of what was happening grew when the girl ‘ran crying from the confessional and straight to her principal to complain of the abuse.’ Eight years later, and three years after a Doveton delegation tried to warn Pell about Father Searson, Julie received compensation, under the ‘Melbourne Response’ scheme (devised by Pell), a derisory $25,000, and ‘forced to sign a deed of release’. Her school principal, Graeme Sleeman, ‘lost his career trying to bring Searson to justice (Milligan, ‘History Will Not be Kind’, ABC News, 8 May 2020, and Marr, Guardian, same day). Under Pell injustice prevailed.

Father Kevin O’Donnell, a serial paedophile, pleaded guilty to abusing eight children, then to a further 12, over decades, in ‘every parish’ to which he was moved. Two of his sorriest victims were the sisters, Emma and Katie Foster, aged about five at the time. After their abuse at Sacred Heart Primary in Oakleigh, Emma died of a drug overdose, and Katie, drinking to numb her pain, walked in front of a speeding car. Their parents (Chrissie and Anthony) became ardent campaigners for justice, and told a Victorian parliamentary inquiry that Pell showed a ‘sociopathic lack of empathy’ in his dealings with them (Cardinal). His cold and aggressive manner was on clear public display when he joined the Doveton faithful in a forum: Anthony Foster began with some known facts about O’Donnell’s assault on Emma, and Pell interjected: “I hope you can substantiate that in court”. When Chrissie Foster soon after named Searson as an abuser, he reportedly thundered: “It’s all gossip until its proven in court and I don’t listen to gossip” (quoted in The Prince).

The seemingly most awful perpetrator was Gerard Risdale, with more than 130 offences against children as young as four years, 1960s-1980s. Pell lived with him in 1973, he was uninterested in Risdale’s offending and why he was moved not less than six times. The Commission heard evidence that Pell was involved in some or all of these transfer decisions. When he did learn of Risdale’s behaviour, he dismissed it as “a sad story [which] wasn’t of much interest to me”, he informed the Commission in 2016 (quoted by Melissa Davey, ‘George Pell Failed the Children’, Guardian, 9 May 2020).

Nazareno Fasciale, a serial paedophile, was permitted to retire on grounds of ill-health. Charged by Victoria Police, he died six weeks later. Pell joined others in a requiem mass for Fasciale in March 1996.

Pell’s arrogance was again vented when he told the Commission in 2014 that he had originally taken comments from victims’ rights groups about abuse in the Church “with a grain of salt” (Davey, Guardian, 7 May 2020).

The Report of the Royal Commission

The release of the redacted pages, some 100, places Pell in a new, clear light. The Commission is seen to have ‘dissected forensically and rejected one by one’ Pell’s excuses, as ‘implausible, inconceivable, untenable and unacceptable’. Most were not historic crimes, but abuses that were happening around Pell ‘as he began his long climb to the top’ in the Catholic church. The Commissioners found that he knew enough even on his own evidence about Searson ‘to know he had to be removed from his parish, and that Bishop Pell ‘had the capacity and opportunity’ to act. Above all, ‘in direct contradiction to Pell’s evidence’, ‘he must have known why Risdale was being moved from parish to parish in Ballarat: sex with children’. Risdale’s crimes ‘were common knowledge’ and were known to the bishop and most of his ‘consultors’ or advisers. “It is inconceivable that the consultors did not know”, the Commission found. Risdale went on for another 15 years (Marr, ‘The Hidden Findings’, Guardian, 7 May 2020). Regarding Searson, the Commission affirmed: “We do not accept any qualification that [their conclusions are] only appreciable in retrospect” (quoted by Davey, same date).

In reaction to the revelations, Peter O’Brien, a solicitor who had represented victims, said that police must investigate the findings that Pell knew of the abuse and failed to act: “At the very least there must be a criminal investigation. The findings are extremely damning and suggest criminal, not only immoral, misconduct.” Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundatin, said that Pell was “allegedly complicit in covering-up and potentially concealing crimes…” Lisa Flynn, Shine Lawyers’ national practice leader, felt that Pell ‘did not deserve his Cardinal title (Davey, Guardian 7 May 2020).

Victoria Police told the ABC that they ‘would undertake an assessment’ of the Commission’s findings: they are ‘not completely ruling out the possibility of investigating the cardinal’. But Keiran Tapsell, author of a book on canon law, noted that laws on mandatory reporting on child sex abuse by clergy weren’t brought in in Victoria until 2014, and they don’t apply retrospectively. Previous attempts to prosecute senior Catholics for knowing about clergy abuse have failed (Jessica Longbottom, ABC News, 10 May 2020).

But Pell is arguably different and is seen to be different. Not least by his victims and their supporters. Paul Levey was 13 when he was sent to live with Risdale in Mortlake, where he was ‘abused daily for six months’. He visited the Vatican in 2016, with other survivors, seeking justice. Inspired by the release of the redacted documents, he is organising a petition for the defrocking of Cardinal Pell. In the first 48 hours, his petition was signed by 32,000 people. He intends to send it to Pope Francis, the Melbourne archbishop and the Ballarat bishop (Matt Neal, ABC South West Vic, 11 May 2020).

Pell’s offending against the surviving boy (Witness J) goes back to the 1990s. At his trial at the end of 2018, the judge advised the jury that, if they believed the victim, they must convict. After they did, a suppression order restricted reporting on Pell. But his intimidatory, bullying manners are recorded. While his defence before the High Court stressed the unreasonableness of his alleged behaviour in the busy Sunday sacristy, it is possible that such normalities could have been outweighed by his “staggering arrogance” and ‘sense of impunity’. The times are different, in Australia as in Ireland. The quest for justice is strengthened by the Commission’s findings.