The sting operation that came apart

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Cardinal George Pell holds a copy of his book, “Prison Journal,” during an interview with CNS at his residence in Rome on 18 December 2020. Cardinal Pell talked to CNS. Photo: Robert Duncan

Victoria’s policing and criminal justice systems erred so seriously in relation to Cardinal George Pell that it shows that not even victims of abuse or bona fide complainants, let alone an accused person like the cardinal, could rely on them, says Australian legal expert Fr Frank Brennan SJ.

The law professor and rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne attended key parts of Cardinal Pell’s trials and appeals and had access to court transcripts.

He became convinced that the cardinal was innocent of the historical sexual abuse charges brought against him, and that he should never have had to face them.

“By the time it came to [his] trial there’s no doubt that a lot of people in Australia, particularly in some of the media, particularly in the Victoria Police, were looking for both a scapegoat and a victim.”

In an exclusive interview with The Catholic Weekly, Fr Brennan was scathing in his assessment of the police work conducted under the former Police Commissioner Graham Ashton and subsequent failures which saw Cardinal Pell imprisoned for 13 months until his release through a unanimous decision of the High Court of Australia in April 2020.

His latest book, Observations on the Pell Proceedings, was published in April.

An exclusive 8-page analysis by Fr Brennan of the entire case will appear in next week’s 5 September edition of The Catholic Weekly.

Fr Frank Brennan speaks at the National Press Club in Canberra in 2009. Fr Brennan’s latest book, Observations on the Pell Proceedings, subjects Cardinal George Pell’s trials and convictions to a forensic and searching legal scrutiny. Photo: AAP, Alan Porritt

Fr Brennan said that he “cannot forgive” the actions of the Victorian Police and the Victoria Director of Public Prosecutions in the Cardinal’s matter and believes they were the result of a political vendetta against the prelate.

These caused both the Cardinal and his accuser months of unnecessary “agony” and had consequences for genuine complainants and victims of abuse, he said.

“All of us, including those of us in the Church, but also victims and bona fide complainants need to be assured that the legal system was doing its job,” said the priest.

“You’re left thinking of the enormous resources the police invested [when all they were] interested in was getting Pell charged.”

Fr Brennan said the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had done the necessary work in shedding light on “deficient” management structures in the Church which had put children at risk, but along with a separate Victorian parliamentary inquiry, also resulted in an environment where the cardinal could become a scapegoat.

Upon his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Cardinal Pell had established the Melbourne Response in consultation with the Victorian Police and Victorian legal authorities, yet there was still a perception that he had failed to make necessary changes in the interests of children in the Church, Fr Brennan added.

“By the time it came to [his] trial there’s no doubt that a lot of people in Australia, particularly in some of the media, particularly in the Victoria Police, were looking for both a scapegoat and a victim,” he said.

The cost of poisoning the public mind: workers cover graffiti at the entrance to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. The cathedral was vandalised even though Cardinal George Pell had been released from prison the previous day after being unanimously found innocent by the High Court of Australia. Police and media persecution of the cardinal led many Australians beyond the bounds of reason. Photo: CNS, Daniel Pockett, AAP Image via Reuters

“Sadly, the two most senior judges of Victoria, the Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal, I think were infected with the same sort of mentality that the juries had when they came to this case.

“They were not sufficiently dispassionate to look at the evidence and say there’s no way at all that a jury could be convinced on this.”

Fr Brennan was commissioned by the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference to observe the court proceedings and report on them once a suppression order was lifted.

“That’s because what was shown was the police force was not constrained by the DPP and the police force was engaged in a political vendetta.”

He became convinced of the Cardinal’s innocence when prosecutor Mark Gibson QC whom he knew to be “an honourable man and a good lawyer” struggled in vain to find the six minutes when the offending against two choristers after a solemn high Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral was alleged to have occurred. But that was only one of the many serious problems with the case against the Cardinal.

“You’re left thinking of the enormous resources the police invested [when all they were] interested in was getting Pell charged,” Fr Brennan said.

“They knew that by getting him charged, they would have destroyed his reputation, and that’s what it was, a sting operation.”

Scenes from a nightmare: Cardinal Pell arrives at trial with the media held at bay by Victorian police. Photo: CNS photo/Daniel Pockett, via Reuters
Scenes from a nightmare: Cardinal Pell arrives at trial with the media held at bay by Victorian police. Photo: CNS photo/Daniel Pockett, via Reuters

While the case “did no favours” to Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church it also did not help victims or bona fide complainants, Fr Brennan said.

“That’s because what was shown was the police force was not constrained by the DPP and the police force was engaged in a political vendetta.” Fr Brennan’s new book is dedicated to “those who seek truth, justice and healing and to those who have been denied them”.

He is appalled that both the cardinal and his accuser known as Witness J “were put through extraordinary agony of different sorts by incompetent policing and by a Director of Public Prosecutions who should have known much better than to make a show trial of this one”.

“I would say that he is an honourable man, and having got to know him more as I did I was left in even less doubt, if that was possible, that he could have possibly done what was alleged.”

Despite some public differences on a number of issues, the Jesuit priest said that his relationship with the cardinal has grown “quite friendly” over the past two years.

“I would say that he is an honourable man, and having got to know him more as I did I was left in even less doubt, if that was possible, that he could have possibly done what was alleged,” Fr Brennan said.

Observations on the Pell Proceedings is available from The Mustard Seed Bookshop www.mustardseed.org.au

Listen to the full interview with Fr Frank Brennan: