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Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby endorses new edition of book on Cardinal Pell media pile-on

Cardinal George Pell in Rome in 2020. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan
Cardinal George Pell in Rome in 2020. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan

The new updated new edition of Cardinal Pell, The Media Pile-On & Collective Guilt contains an endorsement by the former High Court of Australia judge Michael Kirby AC CMG.

After reading the first edition in July last year, he wrote, with respect to Cardinal George Pell’s conviction in December 2018: “Even if one did not study more than the time interval taken to cross the Cathedral [in Melbourne], a very serious doubt was raised as to Cardinal Pell’s guilt.” Kirby added that the book is “an important contribution to the efforts to establish a Criminal Cases Review Commission – as in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada”.

On 12 January, The Australian led with a report by Dennis Shanahan that, at the mass marking the first anniversary of Cardinal Pell’s death the previous day, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP had described his conviction and imprisonment as a result of “the corrupt Victorian legal system” following a media, political and policy witch hunt.

Shanahan quoted Michael Kirby, who is not a Catholic, as describing Pell’s conviction as “a miscarriage of justice”. As is well known, Pell’s convictions for historical child sexual abuse were quashed by the High Court, in a devastating seven to nil single judgment, on 7 April 2020.

When the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney and a former High Court judge criticise the legal process in one of the most important cases in Australian criminal law, it would be expected that this would be regarded as news. Especially by the ABC, Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian Australia—all of which were active participants in the Pell pile-on. But no. They all threw the switch to effective censorship.

In my book, I criticised some 120 journalists who were engaged in the media pile-on against Pell—including some 40 from the ABC. Not one has come back to me claiming that they were misquoted and/or sought changes to the text. The list includes Louise Milligan (ABC), David Marr (ABC and The Guardian), Sarah Ferguson (ABC), Melissa Davey (The Guardian), Lucie Morris-Marr (The New Daily/CNN) and Suzanne Smith (formerly ABC).

In launching the new updated edition of my book in Sydney on 24 January, Fr Frank Brennan SJ described the failure of such journalists to defend their work as “intellectual cowardice.”

Following Pell’s death, even the likes of Milligan and Marr dropped references to Pell’s alleged pedophilia—so emphatic had been the High Court’s judgment. Instead they focused on the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse which was headed by former judge Peter McClellan KC.

Author and journalist Gerard Henderson. Images by Giovanni Portelli Photography © 2021

The Royal Commission’s findings with respect to the Cardinal were released shortly after the High Court’s unanimous judgment. They were hostile to Pell—finding that he had not acted, when in a position of authority, to protect children from pedophile Catholic priests and brothers.

As I demonstrate in my book, there was no forensic or documentary evidence to support the Royal Commission’s findings. McClellan and his colleagues found that it was variously “inconceivable” or “unlikely” that Pell had not acted in a certain way. That’s not evidence, it’s opinion.

Moreover, the findings were inconsistent in two important instances. It was a shoddy piece of work.

In five years with a staff of around 300 at any one time and a budget of $370 million, the Royal Commission did not undertake even one case study into pedophilia in government schools. Its focus was on Catholic, Anglican and other religious schools.

Since the Royal Commission wound up at the end of 2017, the governments of Tasmania and Victoria have set up boards of inquiry into historical child sexual abuse in state schools. Evidence presented to both inquiries reveals that, over decades, pstate education departments covered up child sexual abuse and moved male teachers from school to school.

As I document in the updated edition, in May 2023, not long after the Cardinal’s death, McClellan wrote a foreword to a book in which he stated that Pell gave evidence to the Royal Commission that the Catholic Church did not understand that the rape of a child was a crime but rather regarded it as a moral failure.

The claim, which was repeated by Michael Rowland on TV ABC, is simply false. In a written statement to the Royal Commission on 14 February 2014, and in oral testimony later, Pell specifically referred to the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, teachers and personnel as “crimes.”

As Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Pell set up the Melbourne Response to deal with child sexual abuse. The archdioceses and dioceses in the rest of Australia created Towards Healing the following year. The governments of Victoria and Tasmania set up their inquiries into state schools a quarter of a century later. The other states and the territories have not done so.

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