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Cardinal George Pell gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Rome in 2020. Photo: CNS, Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters

Cardinal George Pell: Watch the mendacity light up

As the irrational criticisms of Cardinal George Pell burns bright in Australia again, it’s worth revisiting the actual truth

I had thought that the Australian media, self-proclaimed comedians and other members of the political and commentariat class had defamed Cardinal George Pell more than any human person could be defamed in recent years. It turns out I was wrong. Given that Australian law deems it impossible to defame a person who has died, a good number of his detractors have done away with the microscopic amount of restraint they had left and lowered themselves to new depths of defamation in the days since His Eminence passed away.

So, instead of writing a ‘tribute column’ to the Cardinal, I will instead pay tribute to him by setting the record straight on the allegations still being made against him. Something tells me he will appreciate some straight-talking and truth-telling more than any kind words I could offer.

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Let’s start with his High Court acquittal.

In every report about the Cardinal’s death, reference is made to his (wrongful) conviction for child sexual abuse and his subsequent imprisonment. Some media outlets, notably the national broadcaster, include the overturning of that conviction as a begrudging footnote to a full rehashing of the allegations. Others have implied a question still exists over whether he committed the crimes because a judgment of ‘not guilty’ is not the same as a declaration of innocence.

But a court is not empowered to declare a person innocent; the best they can do is find that they are ‘not guilty.’ Even with this legal constraint, however, the High Court came as close as humanly and legally possible to calling him an innocent man. In a unanimous, 7-0 decision, the court declared that there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted” and ordered that the verdict be changed to one of acquittal.

The judgment was brief. There were no obscure points of law or legal technicalities on which it rested. The decision was made by just looking at the evidence. Case closed.

Even the most Pell-hating, anti-Catholic journalists have to concede this point, so they look for other ways to bring him down.

The next line of attack, then, is that even if he was innocent of abuse himself, he was responsible for – or at least complicit in – the cover up of abuse by others, and the moving of abusive priests to different parishes to avoid their crimes being detected. These commentators vaguely cite “Royal Commission findings” as their source for these claims.
The only problem is that the Royal Commission findings were not that clear cut.

The Royal Commission did find that, “in the early 1970s, Cardinal Pell was told by one or two students, and one or two priests, about [Father] Dowlan’s infractions of a sexual nature with minors.” They were only able to make this finding because the Cardinal testified that it occurred. The Royal Commission would not have known this unless the Cardinal volunteered the information.

The Cardinal reported the matter to the school chaplain who assured him the Christian Brothers knew and that they had it in hand. Dowlan left the school shortly thereafter. Cardinal Pell conceded that he should have also told the school principal and followed up, and the Royal Commission agreed, but he can hardly be accused of a cover up.

Then there was Gerald Ridsdale, one of Australia’s most notorious paedophiles. The Royal Commission found that Cardinal Pell, as a member of the Ballarat College of Consultors, would have been told about Ridsdale’s offending. Other consultors testified they weren’t told at the meeting, and the minutes are vague as to the discussion of the reasons Ridsdale was being moved, first to further study and then to work at an adult education centre.

Even if the Commission’s findings were correct (and there is plenty of reason to consider they are not), Cardinal Pell was one of many consultors present, had no authority over Ridsdale, and Ridsdale was not moved to another parish following these meetings, but away from children.

Those who hounded the cardinal to death show no sign of relenting, even now, and they appear to be immune to the truth, no matter how many times it is clearly presented.”

Finally, there was the case of Peter Searson. Newspaper reports confirmed that police had been investigating Searson since 1982 and again in 1986. The Victorian parliamentary inquiry reported that police had interviewed children from the school and could not garner enough evidence to lay charges against Searson.

Despite this, the Royal Commission found that Cardinal Pell – who did not become auxiliary bishop until 1987 – should have taken action to recommend to Archbishop Frank Little that Searson be removed. The Commission didn’t find the Cardinal knew before anyone else, covered anything up, nor moved him to a different parish.

It was also clear that, in his first 100 days as Archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell ensured Searson was stood down from ministry, never to return, even without charges being laid.

Even if the Commission’s findings are all to be accepted, that was the sum total of it. In the length and breadth of a disgraceful criminal abuse crisis, the Cardinal was not responsible for it occurring or its cover up.

If anything, Cardinal Pell was at the forefront of dealing with the abuse crisis. The Melbourne Response was launched five full years before The Boston Globe broke the US abuse story in 2001.

However, because they can’t get the Cardinal on crimes or cover ups, or a delay in dealing with abuse publicly, the line of attack is that he set up the Melbourne Response so early in order to underpay victims with liability caps and silence them with confidentiality clauses.

This, unsurprisingly, is false.

Let’s look at the liability caps first.

The Melbourne Response initially capped payments to abuse survivors at $50,000 and then at $75,000. The average amount paid to a survivor was $46,000, which is less than the average amount awarded in civil claims in the courts. But – unlike litigation – the Melbourne Response did not require a survivor to prove the abuse occurred.

Assessed by current standards, the caps imposed in 1996 were too low, but they were far more generous compared to the equivalent state-based compensation schemes. The Queensland Government’s pre-Royal Commission redress scheme for those abused in state care was capped at $40,000 and had an average payment of $13,000, the South Australian scheme had a cap of $50,000 and an average payment of $14,100, the West Australian scheme had a cap of $45,000 on redress payouts and an average payment of $23,000, while the Tasmanian scheme was capped at $60,000 and paid out, on average, half of that amount.

We know that any amount of financial compensation would be inadequate, but those accusing Cardinal Pell of seeking to limit payments to victims are being mendacious. If that was his intention, he would have simply mirrored the state compensation schemes, which would not have only saved money but also shielded him from some of the criticism over its set up.

Confidentiality clauses are standard in the settlement of civil claims. Reasonable people can disagree about whether they are appropriate in child abuse cases, but remember that under the Melbourne Response, a person did not have to prove their abuse occurred even to a civil standard of proof, much less a criminal one. Without confidentiality clauses, the alleged abusers who were the subject of the Melbourne Response claims could be publicly named as a paedophile without ever having the case against them tested in court.

Those who hounded the Cardinal to his death show no sign of relenting, even now, and they appear to be immune to the truth, no matter how many times it is clearly presented.
Some might ask whether, then, it is worth continuing to correct them now that the Cardinal has passed.

Who knows? What I do know, though, is that the Cardinal spent his whole life defending the truth. The best tribute I can give to him is to try to do the same.

Rest in peace, Eminence. Thanks for teaching me how to box.

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