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Get Pell: the facts behind the Royal Commission headlines

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The hearing room of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Photo:
The hearing room of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Photo:


In this past week, we heard news that Cardinal George Pell’s testimony before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse would be delayed after his treating cardiologist deemed it unsafe for him to take the long-haul flight back to Australia.

The news prompted the expected reaction from mainstream and social media, with scepticism, scorn and derision being the most popular responses.

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There has also been a lot of misinformation being spread, the most serious being that the cardinal sought to delay the giving of his evidence.

This is, of course, untrue.

Allan Myers QC, the lawyer appearing for Cardinal Pell, asked that the cardinal be permitted to provide his evidence via video link. Mr Myers noted that video evidence is used all the time in hearings, particularly for witnesses who would otherwise have to travel a long distance. Indeed, two witnesses appeared via video link before this same hearing in the same week in which the application was made on behalf of Cardinal Pell.

And Gerald Ridsdale, the perpetrator of many of the crimes being looked at in the Ballarat hearings, gave evidence over a number of days via video link in May.

Mr Myers assured the commission that those representing Cardinal Pell were willing to make arrangements for the best quality equipment to be provided so that all mechanical issues which might make evidence via video link difficult would be overcome.

Despite these assurances, Justice Peter McClellan rejected the application, ruling that the complexity of the issues to be addressed and the technical difficulties of providing video evidence made it preferable that the cardinal appear in person, and deferred the giving of evidence until the next sitting in Ballarat in February 2016. Justice McClellan also foreshadowed further delays if the cardinal was still unfit for travel at that time.

This decision is, of course, within the commission’s prerogative. But given that it was the commission, and not Cardinal Pell, who made the ruling, it is incorrect to say that it is the cardinal who is making survivors and others wait for answers.

In all honesty, the notion that anyone is or will be left waiting for answers is somewhat of an exaggeration, given that Cardinal Pell has testified to most of these matters previously, at both the 2013 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and at Royal Commission hearings into the archdiocese of Melbourne in August 2014.

There is sufficient evidence already publicly available which provides us with a very clear and comprehensive picture of the response to the allegations made against the cardinal.

These allegations either have been, or will be, tested in the Royal Commission and the Commissioners and those following its proceedings will be privy to the full evidence in relation to these matters. However, most people will only obtain their information from the media reports of these allegations, which necessarily need to be more succinct, but are also often sensationalised in order to attract readers.

The problem is: these matters have great potential to cause scandal and distrust amongst Catholics and others if only a part of the story is published.

Melbourne Response avoided paying up to $62 million to abuse survivors by capping payments 

On Sunday, 6 December 2015, the Sunday Age reported that the Melbourne Response had saved the Catholic Church up to $62 million by capping payments to abuse survivors initially at $50,000 and then at $75,000. The Sunday Age arrived at this figure by comparing the average amount paid under the Melbourne Response ($46,000) to the average amount paid in civil claims ($270,000) and then multiplying the difference between the two by the number of survivors who went through the Melbourne Response.

This analysis ignores a number of key factors, such as the Melbourne Response not requiring a survivor to prove the abuse occurred. It also ignores evidence provided to the Royal Commission about redress schemes run by various state governments for those who suffered abuse in state care. All of this is summarised in the Royal Commission’s final report on redress (refer Table 13 of that document). The document shows that the Queensland Government redress scheme was capped at $40,000 and had an average payment of $13,000, the Tasmanian Government scheme had a cap of $60,000 and an average payment of $30,000, the South Australian scheme has a cap of $50,000 and an average payment of $14,100, and the Western Australian scheme had a cap of $45,000 and an average payment of $23,000.

While reasonable people can and should disagree on the sufficiency of the amounts paid (and indeed, whether any amount of financial compensation would ever be adequate), it is important to consider other comparable schemes in assessing the generosity or otherwise of the Melbourne Response.

It is also worth considering that the Royal Commission itself has recommended a redress scheme which involves three main elements: a direct, personal response from the institution, counselling and psychological care, and a monetary payment (the average payment for which the Royal Commission suggests should be $65,000.) All of these three elements were present in the Melbourne Response from its inception more than 19 years ago.

Cardinal Pell lied about seeing the photograph of Emma Foster 

In its episode on Sunday evening, 6 December 2015, 60 Minutes accused Cardinal Pell of lying to Richard Carleton in a 2002 interview when he said that he had not seen a photograph of Emma Foster after she had slashed her wrists. In that interview, Cardinal Pell said: “I’ve never seen the photo… Well, I don’t believe I’ve seen it. I’ve got no recollection of it.”

Eleven years later, on 27 May 2013, Cardinal Pell was asked this question at the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry: “When Chrissie and Anthony Foster showed you a photograph of their daughter Emma after she had slashed her wrists, did you respond, and again I quote: “Mmm, she’s changed, hasn’t she?””

Cardinal Pell responded: “Probably, but you’ve got to understand that this was a, the production of this photo was something sudden, and I didn’t have a chance for a considered response.”

60 Minutes said this “bombshell” admission followed “years of denial” by Cardinal Pell.

There are a couple of points to make about this. 

Firstly, it does not appear that there were years of denial by Cardinal Pell. Indeed, I cannot find any public comments by him about this incident between the two interviews recorded above. Years of silence are not equivalent to years of denial.

Additionally, the comments by Cardinal Pell to Richard Carleton in 2002 are not unequivocal. After an initial reaction saying he had not seen the photograph, he immediately reduced the severity of that assertion and said he did not recall seeing it.

Eleven years later, when asked about it, he acknowledged he had been shown the photograph.

It is possible that after reflecting on the question following what was obviously a tense interview (which Cardinal Pell described as an “ambush” in the days following), Cardinal Pell recalled seeing the photo or accepted that it was likely it had been showed to him. 60 Minutes does not even entertain this possibility when it called Cardinal Pell a liar over this issue. Given that he is about to give testimony at the Royal Commission, the naming of him as a liar is at best unfair, at worst defamatory.


Cardinal Pell pictured in a 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS
Cardinal Pell pictured in a 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS

Cardinal Pell tried to bribe David Ridsdale in order to keep him silent 

On the 60 Minutes program on Sunday evening, 6 December 2015 and again in Monday’s Royal Commission proceedings, David Ridsdale alleged that he phoned then- Bishop Pell in February 1993 to tell him that he had been abused by his uncle, Gerald Ridsdale. David Ridsdale told 60 Minutes and the Commission that Bishop Pell asked him: “What will it take to keep you quiet?”

However, in evidence before the Royal Commission on Monday, David Ridsdale said that he was terrified of going public, and asked Bishop Pell if a private process was available which would not include going to the Police.

Additionally, documents provided to the Commission dated 26 January 1993 and 4 February 1993 show that there was a police investigation already underway in relation to Gerald Ridsdale, and this was known amongst those in authority in the Catholic Church.

Under these circumstances, it is not unreasonable to question David Ridsdale’s recollection of the conversation with Cardinal Pell. By his own evidence at Monday’s Commission hearing, Mr Ridsdale had indicated he wanted the matter to be dealt with privately. And Church officials, including Bishop Pell, knew that a Police investigation was underway, so the “purchase” of silence at this point would have been redundant.

But 60 Minutes did not raise these matters at all. They just let the allegation sit there, uncontested.

Cardinal Pell is re-traumatising victims by subjecting them to cross-examination 

The next allegation made in the 60 Minutes program was that Cardinal George Pell was set to “defy” the Catholic Church’s stated position that it would not cross-examine survivor witnesses at the Royal Commission, and that he would subject them to cross-examination. David Ridsdale said on the program that this felt like an attack.

There are a couple of points to be made here.

Firstly, Commissioner Peter McClellan urged the cross-examination of witnesses who had made allegations against Cardinal Pell. In an exchange with lawyers for the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council on 20 May 2015, Justice McClellan said that the Royal Commission would likely have to make a finding of fact about the allegations made against Cardinal Pell, because they are part of the “institutional response to child sexual abuse” from the Catholic Church. Justice McClellan explained that the consequence of not challenging the evidence from these witnesses would most likely result in the witness being believed and their evidence forming the basis of a finding by the Royal Commission. Given that some of these witnesses are accusing Cardinal Pell of very serious and potentially criminal behaviour, it would be unjust to not cross-examine the witnesses.

Secondly, cross-examination also provides the witnesses themselves with an opportunity to respond to Cardinal Pell’s version of events, which are presented to the witness during the cross-examination.

It is only fair that each survivor witness gets to comment on what Cardinal Pell’s evidence will be.

And finally, in the Royal Commission proceedings dated 25 May 2015, lawyers for Timothy Green and David Ridsdale each told the Royal Commission that their clients were willing to be cross-examined on their evidence. These are the only two witnesses who were recalled by Cardinal Pell’s lawyers for cross-examination.

The hearing room of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Photo:
The hearing room of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Photo:

Key player in the Melbourne response, Professor Richard Ball, has a conflict of interest 

A number of allegations were also made on the 60 Minutes program against Professor Richard Ball.

The first was the “big reveal” which related to two letters sent on the same day regarding Fr Kevin O’Donnell.

But 60 Minutes neglected to report on a third letter – which was the letter which contained the request for Professor Ball to assess O’Donnell in the first place. In that letter, Professor Ball was requested by O’Donnell’s lawyers to provide a report to the Court, and to “limit [his] enquiries and [his] opinion to the issue of the effect the imprisonment would have on [O’Donnell] given his age and his medical condition”. Ball was never asked to provide any information to the court about O’Donnell’s offending history.

Reasonable people can disagree whether Professor Ball should have volunteered this information to the court, but it is worth noting that his assessment of O’Donnell was commissioned by O’Donnell’s lawyers, and not the court. This meant that it was in the discretion of O’Donnell’s lawyers as to whether to submit the document at all or not. It was not within Ball’s capabilities to produce anything to the court himself.

While purporting to show the full suite of documents, 60 Minutes omitted one which puts the issue and the allegations against Professor Ball in more context.

This “big reveal” also led to comments being in the program that there was a conflict of interest in relation to Professor Ball’s role because he was both providing expert evidence for accused Priests and was involved in the provision of counselling to survivors. 

Mr Foster said on the program: “No victim would want to talk to him. Any victim who was sitting in front of a psychiatrist who also had that victim’s perpetrator as a client would be horrified at that. That just is wrong, it is wrong.”

In her comments following, host Tara Brown said that the Fosters were told they were overreacting, and Cardinal Pell was quoted as saying he had absolute confidence in Professor Ball.

This ignores the role description of Professor Ball, which was also part of the evidence before the Royal Commission. In that document, Professor Ball was told: “It is noted that from time to time you provide treatment to priests of the archdiocese. Obviously, you will not have direct contact with persons who claim to be victims of such priests.”

From the very beginning, Professor Ball was instructed to avoid any conflict of interest.

Even so, in its report on the Melbourne Response, the Royal Commission criticised the lack of trust which Professor Ball’s appointment could inspire in survivors because of the perceived conflict of interest. The Commissioners noted in the report that this was a matter of perception and not of Professor Ball’s integrity, which the report said the Commissioners did not doubt.

But 60 Minutes ignored the Commission’s confidence in the integrity of Professor Ball, and chose to accuse him instead.

At this point, I want to pause and note something which I will return to again later. The Royal Commission in its report said that the perception that a conflict of interest exists could seriously challenge a survivor’s trust.

By repeating issues of conflict already dealt with by the Royal Commission as being “new” revelations, and by sensationalising them, calling them duplicitous and saying the potential for conflict had only just been revealed (despite these documents being the subject of a public hearing almost 12 months ago), 60 Minutes is itself inspiring a lack of trust in survivors. And for what end?

As mentioned, the Royal Commission has already dealt with these issues. Let’s hope that 60 Minutes are not promoting an unnecessary lack of trust in persons whose trust has already been so horribly betrayed for the purpose of ratings.

“Independent” Commissioner Peter O’Callaghan is not actually independent 

60 Minutes also accused Independent Commissioner for the Melbourne Response, Peter O’Callaghan QC, of a lack of independence in his role. The basis for this allegation was that Richard Leder, the lawyer used by Mr O’Callaghan is the same lawyer used by the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

In a similar vein to the allegations against Professor Ball, the evidence that Mr Leder acted for the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Melbourne Response was evidence already the subject of testimony before the Royal Commission hearings for Case Study 16 in August 2014. Indeed, the case of the Foster family (who featured on the 60 Minutes program) was specifically examined in those hearings. Again, despite these being presented as new revelations by 60 Minutes, the matter has long been dealt with by the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission’s findings in relation to the Melbourne Response said that the arrangement involving Mr Leder raised a clear potential for a conflict of interest, and concluded that the Melbourne Response was not sufficiently independent. The Commission did not, however, say that any outcome was compromised. Instead, the Commission said, the real issue was again perception.

In order to consider whether the outcome was compromised, it would be useful to look at Mr O’Callaghan’s role, and the outcome of his investigations.

Mr O’Callaghan’s role is to make a determination about whether abuse had occurred after receiving a complaint about it. If the complaint was accepted, the matter would then be passed on to CareLink (which provided counselling and other services) and the Compensation Panel.

In evidence before the Royal Commission, it was recorded that Mr O’Callaghan investigated 351 complaints, and accepted 97 per cent of those complaints.

It would be unusual for a Commissioner who, as Tara Brown alleged in the 60 Minutesprogram, “secretly worked against victims” to accept all but a handful of claims. The serious allegation by 60 Minutes does not hold water when you look at Mr O’Callaghan’s record.

And as noted with comments about the allegations against Professor Ball, there is potential harm to be caused to survivors by sensationalising claims of conflict of interest.

Cardinal Pell celebrates Mass at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, in this file photo. Photo: CNS
Cardinal Pell celebrates Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, in this file photo. Photo: CNS

Cardinal Pell ignored a report of abuse by Timothy Green 

Another allegation made against Cardinal Pell and repeated this week in the Royal Commission proceedings on Monday, 7 December 2015 was that he ignored a complaint by a young student about Brother Edward Dowlan molesting boys at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat.

In testimony to the Royal Commission in May 2015 and again on Monday, Mr Timothy Green said that during the 1970s, he was in the swimming pool change room with two other friends and saw then- Fr George Pell. Mr Green said that he told Fr Pell, “Br Dowlan has been touching little boys”, and that Fr Pell said “Don’t be ridiculous”, and walked out of the change room.

In evidence before the Commission on Monday, 7 December 2015, it was noted that one of the friends named by Mr Green who he said was in the change room with him, did not recall the conversation. Additionally, Mr Green said that when he allegedly told Fr Pell about the abuse, he did not see Fr Pell because Mr Green had his back to Fr Pell. It is at least plausible that Fr Pell did not hear Mr Green’s statement, particularly if Mr Green’s own friend who was sitting beside him has given evidence that he did not recall the conversation.

Cardinal Pell joked about the abuse by Gerald Ridsdale to another Priest in 1983 

Another allegation against Cardinal Pell was raised at the Royal Commission on Monday, 7 December 2015, this time by a man given the pseudonym BWE. BWE told the Commission that on Wednesday during the third week of September 1983, he was an altar boy at a requiem Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral for a woman who he believed to be a former parishioner or close friend of then- Fr Pell, who celebrated the Mass. He said that Fr Frank Madden was also present, and that while he was getting ready for Mass with another boy (referred to as BWK), he heard a conversation between Fr Madden and Fr Pell along these lines:

Fr Madden: How are things down your way?

Fr Pell: Ha, ha, I think Gerry’s been rooting boys again.

[Note: “Gerry” is a reference to convicted paedophile, Gerald Ridsdale.]

In many media reports, this is where the story stopped. However, the full proceedings of Monday’s Royal Commission reveal much more.

Firstly, Senior Counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Angus Stewart SC noted that in June 1982, Fr Madden left St Patrick’s Cathedral to become parish Priest of Horsham. Horsham is around 200km from St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat.

Additionally, Mr Stewart noted that BWK had provided a statement to the Royal Commission. In that statement, BWK said that he could not remember serving a funeral with Fr Pell and Fr Madden. He said that he could not recall ever serving a Mass with BWE, nor could he recall BWE being an altar server because he could not recall seeing him in altar robes. BWK also said that he did not recall hearing the alleged conversation, and considered that he would have remembered because he knew what “rooting” meant and would have gone home to tell his brothers.

A list of funerals which occurred at the Cathedral during 1983 showed that there were only two funerals during September 1983, and BWE did not recognise either name. Mr Duggan, Cardinal Pell’s lawyer, told BWE that Cardinal Pell did not say a requiem Mass in September 1983.

Additionally, in September 1983 (the time the alleged conversation occurred), Gerald Ridsdale was in Maroubra, Sydney and had been since November 1982. Cardinal Pell’s lawyer pointed ou that Ridsdale had not been in Ballarat for the better part of 10 years.

For these reasons, it is unlikely that in response to a question about how things were down his way, Fr Pell would have spoken about Gerald Ridsdale at all.

Fr Frank Madden was also examined by the Royal Commission on Wednesday, 9 December 2015. He told the Commission that he believed it was “poor form” for a priest to return to their previous parish to celebrate or even concelebrate funerals, because ministering to a family in this time was the duty and the privilege of the current parish Priest. He said that he would have returned to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat, for the funeral of a Priest or the parent of a Priest, and did return once for the funeral of a former colleague, but that was all. Fr Madden also said that he would be very confident there was never an occasion in which he concelebrated a funeral Mass with Cardinal George Pell. He said that he could not remember Cardinal Pell ever celebrating or concelebrating a funeral at the Cathedral at all, except for Monsignor Henry Nolan, but noted there were a lot of Priests there for that Mass.

Fr Madden was asked whether at any time, at the Cathedral and in the context of a funeral Mass or otherwise, Fr Pell had said to him words to the effect of “Gerry’s been rooting little boys again”. Fr Madden responded firmly, saying “absolutely not, no”.

Most of this information was omitted from media reports about this allegation.

Instead, the allegation against Cardinal Pell is presented without the necessary information which could cast doubt on its accuracy.

Cardinal Pell dismissed a boy who came to the presbytery to report an abusive priest 

Another recent allegation is that Cardinal Pell got angry at a student who tried to report abuse to him.

In Tuesday’s Royal Commission, a witness with the pseudonym BWF gave evidence via audio link from prison. He testified that after his brother had been physically and sexually abused by a Brother at St Patrick’s College, BWF went to the presbytery at St Patrick’s Cathedral at about 3.30 or 4pm in the afternoon and asked to see then- Fr Pell. He said that when Fr Pell came to the door, he blurted out that Dowlan had beaten and molested BWG and demanded to know what Fr Pell was going to do about it. He told the Commission that Fr Pell responded: “Young man, how dare you knock on this door and make demands?” and proceeded to argue with him before telling him to go away and shut the door.

Again, this is where much of the media reporting finished on this allegation.

However, the lawyer for Cardinal Pell pointed out that Cardinal Pell did not live at the cathedral presbytery at the time, and instead was living at St Alipius parish, which was kilometres away from the school. Additionally, Cardinal Pell was working full-time at Aquinas College at the time, meaning he would most likely have been at that college during regular working hours.

Given this, it is unlikely that BWF found then- Fr Pell at the Cathedral presbytery as he alleged.

Concluding remarks

This piece isn’t really about trying to defend Cardinal Pell. 

It is instead designed to demonstrate how easily we can be fed only part of the story by media outlets willing to distort or misrepresent the truth, and hopefully it is an encouragement to you to always look behind the sensational headlines to the underlying story.

There is no conflict between abhorring abuse and being concerned for survivors, and also wanting the truth to be presented at the Commission and reported faithfully in the media. Indeed, the desire to distort and cover up the truth is what led us into this mess in the first place.

All lies are harmful.

Survivors are not served by this type of sensationalised reporting.

Some of them, as we have seen in the allegations made in recent days, can associate Cardinal George Pell with the abuse they suffered or reported, because he is so often pointed to by our media as the main culprit in relation to this shameful part of our history.

Other survivors will strongly desire Cardinal Pell to be imprisoned, defrocked or both. They have been fed the idea that justice (and even their healing) is dependent on his demise. What happens to survivors if this doesn’t occur? Will they ever find peace? And do those who are perpetuating the “get Pell” mentality care either way?

For Catholics, we also need to be armed with the truth. If we are going to continue to work alongside our Church leaders to ensure the Catholic Church is a safe environment for all, we need to be convinced that our efforts will be meaningful and not be in vain. Hearing sensationalised allegations does not assist in inspiring confidence in those working for good. Additionally, it could even deter good people from getting involved in issues of child protection. Cardinal Pell instituted the Melbourne Response. Whatever its imperfections, he did something. Will others in the future be reluctant to step up and contribute to addressing an injustice because they fear they will be denigrated in the same manner as Cardinal Pell has been? It is possible.

And finally, whatever your opinion of Cardinal George Pell, surely we can agree that it is unjust for anyone to be the subject of constant innuendo and accusation which is based on half-truths, and when the full story is so readily available in the public domain.

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