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Pell abuse saga reeks of incompetent policing

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Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, is pictured at the Vatican in this August 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan
Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, is pictured at the Vatican in this August 2014 file photo. Photo: CNS/Robert Duncan

Last Wednesday night’s ABC 7.30 program carried allegations against Cardinal George Pell which, if true, are devastating: life ruining for victims like Damian Dignan and Lyndon Monument; confronting for all citizens committed to the wellbeing of children; and earth shattering for Catholics who still have faith in their church.

The ABC report is also troubling for those of us concerned about due process and the rule of law — not as academic notions for lawyers but as the secure bulwarks of a society in which everyone’s rights and interests are protected.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can all say it would have been better if onlookers like Les Tyak in the Torquay Surf Club claiming to have credible evidence of unseemly behaviour by an adult like George Pell towards children went to the police promptly, rather than waiting 30 years. As it was put on 7.30, ‘One summer day, [Mr Tyak] says he witnessed a strange incident, so strange it later compelled him to go to police.’ The incident is alleged to have occurred in the mid-1980s. Mr Tyak went to the police in 2015.

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George Pell has been the focus of attention, like no other, during the long running Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He has been grilled publicly for days on end about what he knew and did not know about abuse committed by others when he was a priest in Ballarat and when auxiliary bishop in Melbourne.

The Commission has been so focused on Pell that they decided to make the abuse of the late Fr Peter Searson their primary focus when investigating the abuse by Melbourne priests. This was not because Searson was the worst abuser, but because he worked in the region of the Archdiocese where Pell had supervision as auxiliary bishop.

The commission went to great lengths to reconvene and to call witnesses from the Catholic Education Office to highlight that there was no deliberate attempt to keep information from Pell. In the course of the inquiry, it became clear that the officers from the Catholic Education Office did not provide Pell with detailed information about Searson’s wrongdoings. They saw no point.

So then the focus moved to Pell’s rationalisation as to why he was not given relevant information. Whether or not that rationalisation was correct was a matter of intense media interest, though a matter of minimal forensic importance.

 So now before the royal commission reports on what Pell knew or did not know about the abuse by others and what he did or did not do in response to that abuse, we have this television report of allegations of abuse by Pell himself.

There are three ways in which such allegations of abuse by a Catholic official can be treated. The first way is the path of criminal investigation and prosecution. The allegations can be reported to police; police can investigate; police can then refer the matter to the Office of Public Prosecutions. Until charges are laid, it is customary not to publicise allegations, particularly when the allegations relate to child sexual abuse.

The second way is for the victim to make a complaint under the Church’s Towards Healing process. If a credible complaint is received and if it involves criminal behaviour, it will normally be referred to the police, and the church official will be stood down while inquiries are concluded. Neither of these ways has been pursued in the instance of these allegations of abuse by George Pell.

The second path was followed in 2002 when an unnamed man came forward to allege that Pell had fondled him inappropriately in much the same way as alleged last night by Damian Dignan and Lyndon Monument. Pell was stood aside until a retired judge who conducted the inquiry concluded:

‘I accept … that the complainant, when giving evidence of molesting, gave the impression that he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection. However, the respondent, also, gave me the impression that he was speaking the truth. In the end, and notwithstanding that impression of the complainant, bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defence occasioned by the very long delay, some valid criticism of the complainant’s credibility, the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent, I find I am not ‘satisfied that the complaint has been established’.

Pell then returned to office. Being cleared, he was further promoted in the Church and he is presently a cardinal and the Secretary of the Economy in the Vatican and one of Pope Francis’s trusted inner cabinet of nine cardinals who provide regular papal advice.

The third path is a mixture of regular policing, police leaks, and media speculation pursued by police and others who are not convinced that the two regular paths will produce an appropriate outcome. This path is particularly problematic when it involves the Victoria Police under the leadership of its commissioner Graham Ashton and the Catholic Church under the leadership of Cardinal George Pell. The history is poisonous. The well of good relations has been poisoned at three stages.

When Pell became archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 he moved promptly to set up the Melbourne Response. This Response was drawn up in close consultation with the Victorian government and the Victoria Police. The close working relationship between the church and the police fell apart at the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into The Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations. A key witness was Graham Ashton who was later to promoted to police commissioner. Ashton complained about the Church protocol and tried to distance the Victoria Police from it. It’s sufficient to quote the parliamentary committee’s final report:

As far as the Committee is aware, Victoria Police made no complaint about the absence of reports and made no request for a review of the protocol for at least 12 years. It is clear that Victoria Police paid inadequate attention to the fundamental problems of the Melbourne Response arrangements until relatively recently in April 2012 and that, when they did become the subject of public attention, Victoria Police representatives endeavoured quite unfairly to distance the organisation from them.

The second poisoning of the well occurred in February 2016 when Pell was due to give evidence from Rome to the royal commission. There was a timely string of leaks of information adverse to Pell. The information could only have originated from the Victoria Police. The information related to allegations of sexual abuse by Pell, and not just to allegations of cover up by Pell of the abuse committed by others.

If true, the allegations were fatal to Pell’s public standing and position in the Church hierarchy. The media spoke of ‘calls by detectives to be given the green light “as soon as possible” to fly to Rome to interview Cardinal George Pell’. We were told, ‘TheSunday Herald Sun understands senior Victoria Police are assessing the dossier of evidence collected by the Sano team in the past year, including witness statements from alleged victims.’ That newspaper claimed that ‘legal sources (plural) revealed Sano Taskforce members were “highly motivated but frustrated”‘. The source (now singular) was reported as saying that the Sano investigators wanted to go to Rome to interview Pell ‘but that the ultimate decision isn’t down to them. It is with senior figures who will have to give them the go-ahead.’

Pell denied the allegations, said they were scurrilous and that they emanated from the Victoria Police. Pell issued a statement saying that ‘the Victorian Police have never sought to interview him in relation to any allegations of child sexual abuse’, and he ‘called for a public inquiry into the leaking of these spurious claims by elements in the Victorian Police’. In February, Pell then wrote to acting Police Minister Robin Scott requesting an investigation into how the details became public. Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton referred the matter to Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC). The Attorney General said, ‘Under the act that’s the appropriate place for that matter to be dealt with.’

IBAC claims that it informs all complainants of the outcome of their complaint within two months. Here we are five months later and there has still been no word from the Victoria government, the Victoria police or any other government agency about the leaks. Pell’s original complaint remains unaddressed. IBAC says that if a complaint is outside its jurisdiction, the matter can be considered by the Victoria Police’s Professional Standards Command. The police investigating themselves.

So now we come to the third dose of poison added to the well, on last night’s ABC 7.30. Mr Ashton has still not told us where the leaks came from. He has still not allowed the Sano Taskforce to travel to Rome to interview Pell despite Pell indicating his availability. A week before the 7.30 program went to air, Pell issued a statement which remains uncontested:

No request has been made to interview Cardinal Pell nor has he received any details of these claims from the police or anyone. In late May the Cardinal was advised by the SANO Taskforce that there had been no change in the status of the investigation since the leaks were first reported.

Today Pell has issued a further statement:

‘Nearly six months ago media outlets carried leaked stories of allegations against the Cardinal which were said to have been under investigation by the Victorian SANO Taskforce for over 12 months. Despite this there has been no requests made by the Taskforce to interview the Cardinal and the Victorian Police Commissioner confirmed last month that no request to interview the Cardinal had been proposed to him as necessary.’

If Damian Dignan, Lyndon Monument and George Pell are to receive justice, Graham Ashton should commission his SANO Taskforce to travel to Rome immediately to interview Pell and the Victorian Government should take resolute action to demand that Ashton get to the bottom of the leaks and explain what involvement there has been by Victoria police officers, including disaffected members of the SANO Taskforce. More police obfuscation and media titillation merely risks undermining the standing and outcomes of the present royal commission and further unnecessary suffering for victims seeking justice and closure — to say nothing of the reputation of citizens like Pell, though I do think that remains a relevant consideration in a country under the rule of law.

Make no mistake, if Pell is a child abuser, I want him out of the Vatican and out of the way of children. But if he’s not, I want the Victoria Police to come clean and get back to routine policing, rather than media titillation, for the wellbeing of all of us, especially Damian Dignan and Lyndon Monument. If I were to meet Damian or Lyndon, I would offer the gratuitous advice: your complaints need to be investigated competently and prosecuted appropriately; I’m sorry if police leaks and media publicity have caused you added pain and despair.

This whole saga wreaks of injustice and incompetent policing. And we all pay the cost of that.

This article first appeared on

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