Earlier this week I was invited to join Father Frank Brennan SJ and Gerard Henderson at the Sydney Institute to discuss the upcoming two-year anniversary of Cardinal George Pell’s unanimous acquittal by the High Court in Australia.
There is still so much to say about that case. Questions about the role of Victoria Police and certain players within the Vatican are still unanswered, and they were largely the focus of my contribution that evening.
As we reflected on the four-year period between the allegations being made and the Cardinal’s ultimate vindication, I took the opportunity to share a story that I had not told publicly before.
Louise Milligan’s story about the allegations against Cardinal Pell was screened on Wednesday, 27 July 2016. It’s a night I will remember as long as I live.
“The Cardinal apologised for the trouble. He said he knew it had been a long day, that it was already after 8pm and we had a few hours of work ahead of us.”
At the time, I was part of the communications team at the Archdiocese of Sydney. World Youth Day was underway in Poland, and so a number of the Archdiocesan staff, including all the senior communications staff, were overseas.
On Wednesday morning we were told the program would air that evening. I ended up being responsible for getting statements from Cardinal and from Archbishop Fisher out to the media and onto our website that night.
As 7.30pm approached, my phone rang. On the other end was the Cardinal’s private secretary in Rome.
I was asked to put my phone close to the television with the volume up, so that they could listen to the program as it was airing. It was the first time the Cardinal heard the full extent of the accusations made against him.
Over the next 30 minutes, we heard allegations from Damian Dignan and Lyndon Monument that the Cardinal had abused them in a swimming pool in Ballarat.
We heard Torquay resident Les Tyack accuse the Cardinal of standing naked in front of boys aged 8-10 years in a different swimming pool change room.
There was also a passing mention of the Cathedral abuse allegations for which the Cardinal was convicted (before that decision was quashed in a unanimous judgment of the High Court).
The program ended, and I looked over at my phone, sitting close to the television. The Cardinal was still on the other end of the line.
“She said she figured that to be the case, but that the Cardinal had insisted she call because he was worried about me.”
My hand trembled as I picked it up and put it to my ear. “Your Eminence,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”
His practicality intervened, and he told me that he found it difficult to hear in parts. “We will type up a transcript right now and get it across to you as soon as possible,” I said.
The Cardinal apologised for the trouble. He said he knew it had been a long day, that it was already after 8pm and we had a few hours of work ahead of us.
I told him that at this point, work was the only way I could be of any assistance to him or anyone else, and that I was glad to do it.
And get to work we did. We typed up a transcript, sent it across to the Cardinal, and as statements were written and rewritten, the final ones were sent to the media. Then I jumped in a cab and went home. I think it was about 2am.
While I was on the way home, my phone rang. It was the communications director, calling from overseas. We had already spoken several times that night, so her call wasn’t surprising.
“How are you?” she asked me. I told her I was fine and that the statements had gone to the media and been published online, that I was going to get a few hours’ sleep and would then be back in the office to deal with the expected media onslaught.
“But are you okay?” she asked. “Yep, totally fine,” I told her. She said she figured that to be the case, but that the Cardinal had insisted she call because he was worried about me.
“Yet, in the midst of being accused of horrific crimes … he made sure that a member of the communications staff back in Sydney was okay, because she sounded very upset.”
“She sounded terribly upset on the phone,” he had told her. That was the measure of the man.
To paraphrase the West Wing, while it might not have been the worst day of his life up until that point, it was certainly in the top five.
His Eminence didn’t know me very well; we had met only a couple of times. Yet, in the midst of being accused of horrific crimes on national television, a reputation destroyed, facing the prospect of a media tsunami, of criminal charges and needing to step down from his senior role in the Vatican, he made sure that a member of the communications staff back in Sydney was okay, because she sounded very upset.
I wanted to mention this story because when I look back on the Cardinal’s trial, imprisonment and vindication, this is the most important memory of them all for me.