Truth and justice after the Pell verdict

Posted on February 27, 2019



Frank Brennan

26 February 201

The suppression order in relation to Cardinal George Pell has been lifted. In December, a jury of 12 of his fellow citizens found him guilty of five offences of child sexual abuse. No other charges are to proceed. Cardinal Pell has appealed the convictions. The verdict was unanimous. The jury took three days to deliberate after a four-week trial. The trial was in fact a re-run. At the first trial, the jury could not agree. The trial related to two alleged victims, one of whom had died.

Cardinal George Pell attends court in May 2018 (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)Members of the public could attend those proceedings if they knew where to go in the Melbourne County Court. Members of the public could hear all the evidence except a recording of the complainant’s evidence from the first trial. The complainant, who cannot be identified, did not give evidence at the retrial; the recording from the first trial was admitted as the complainant’s evidence. The recording was available to the public only insofar as it was quoted by the barristers in their examination of other witnesses or in their final addresses to the jury, and by the judge in his charge to the jury. So, no member of the public has a complete picture of the evidence and no member of the public is able to make an assessment of the complainant’s demeanour.

The complainant’s evidence at the first trial lasted two and a half days. He had been cross-examined for more than a day by Pell’s defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, who has a reputation for being one of the best and one of the toughest cross-examiners in the legal profession. Pell did not give evidence, but a record of his police interview, denying the allegations, was in evidence.

The complainant’s evidence related to events that occurred back in 1996 or 1997 when he was a 13-year-old choir boy at St Patrick’s Cathedral Melbourne. Most other witnesses had been choir boys, altar servers or Cathedral officials in 1996 when Pell first became archbishop of Melbourne. The complainant claimed that the first event, involving four charges, occurred after a solemn Sunday Mass celebrated by Pell in the second half of 1996. It was common ground between the prosecution and the defence that the dates to which these four charges must be attributed were 15 December 1996 or 22 December 1996. These were the dates on which the first and second solemn Sunday Masses were celebrated by Pell in the Cathedral after he had become archbishop in August 1996. The Cathedral had been undergoing renovations and thus was not used for Sunday Masses during earlier months of 1996.

The complainant said that he and another choir boy left the liturgical procession at the end of one Sunday Mass and went fossicking in the off-limits sacristy where they started swilling altar wine. The archbishop arrived unaccompanied, castigated them, and then, while fully robed in his copious liturgical vestments, proceeded to commit three vile sexual acts including oral penetration of the complainant. The complainant said that the sacristy door was wide open and altar servers were passing along the corridor. The complainant said that he and the other boy then returned to choir practice. The choir was making a Christmas recording at that time.

These two choir boys stayed in the choir another year but, the complainant said, they never spoke about the matter to each other, even though they sometimes had sleepovers at each other’s homes. The second boy was once asked by his mother if he had ever been abused by anybody and he said he had not.

The complainant claimed that a month or so later, after a Sunday Mass when the archbishop was presiding (but not celebrating the Mass), Pell came along the corridor outside the sacristy where many choristers and others were milling about. He claimed that Pell grabbed him briefly, put him against the wall, and firmly grasped his genitalia. This was the subject of the fifth charge. Pell knew neither boy and had no contact with either of them thereafter.

“Anyone familiar with the conduct of a solemn Cathedral Mass with full choir would find it most unlikely that a bishop would, without grave reason, leave a recessional procession and retreat to the sacristy unaccompanied.”

The prosecution case was that Pell at his first or second solemn Sunday Mass as archbishop decided for some unknown reason to abandon the procession and his liturgical assistants and hasten from the Cathedral entrance to the sacristy unaccompanied by his Master of Ceremonies Monsignor Charles Portelli while the liturgical procession was still concluding. Portelli and the long time sacristan Max Potter described how the archbishop would be invariably accompanied after a solemn Mass with procession until one of them had assisted the archbishop to divest in the sacristy. There was ample evidence that the Archbishop was a stickler for liturgical form and that he developed strict protocols in his time as archbishop, stopping at the entrance to the Cathedral after Mass to greet parishioners usually for 10 to 20 minutes, before returning to the sacristy to disrobe in company with his Master of Ceremonies. The prosecution suggested that these procedures might not have been in place when Pell first became archbishop. The suggestion was that other liturgical arrangements might have been under consideration.

In his final address, Richter criticised inherent contradictions and improbabilities of many of the details of this narrative. I heard some of the publicly available evidence and have read most of the transcript. I found many of Richter’s criticisms of the narrative very compelling. Anyone familiar with the conduct of a solemn Cathedral Mass with full choir would find it most unlikely that a bishop would, without grave reason, leave a recessional procession and retreat to the sacristy unaccompanied.

Witnesses familiar with liturgical vestments had been called who gave compelling evidence that it was impossible to produce an erect penis through a seamless alb. An alb is a long robe, worn under a heavier chasuble. It is secured and set in place by a cincture which is like a tightly drawn belt. An alb cannot be unbuttoned or unzipped, the only openings being small slits on the side to allow access to trouser pockets underneath. The complainant’s initial claim to police was that Pell had parted his vestments, but an alb cannot be parted; it is like a seamless dress. Later the complainant said that Pell moved the vestments to the side. An alb secured with a cincture cannot be moved to the side. The police never inspected the vestments during their investigations, nor did the prosecution show that the vestments could be parted or moved to the side as the complainant had alleged. The proposition that the offences charged were committed immediately after Mass by a fully robed archbishop in the sacristy with an open door and in full view from the corridor seemed incredible to my mind.

Incensing the CrossRelated image

Archbishop Of Sydney Holds Opening Mass Of World Youth Day 08 : News Photo


Pontifical High Mass celebrated by Cardinal Pell, Sts. peter and Paul’s Cork, 12 July 2009 …

I was very surprised by the verdict. In fact, I was devastated. My only conclusion is that the jury must have disregarded many of the criticisms so tellingly made by Richter of the complainant’s evidence and that, despite the complainant being confused about all manner of things, the jury must nevertheless have thought — as the recent royal commission discussed — that children who are sexually violated do not always remember details of time, place, dress and posture. Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him. The jurors must have judged the complainant to be honest and reliable even though many of the details he gave were improbable if not impossible.

Pell has been in the public spotlight for a very long time. There are some who would convict him of all manner of things in the court of public opinion no matter what the evidence. There are others who would never convict him of anything, holding him in the highest regard. The criminal justice system is intended to withstand these preconceptions. The system is under serious strain, however, when it comes to Cardinal Pell.

The events of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, the federal royal commission, the publication of Louise Milligan’s book Cardinal and Tim Minchin’s song Come Home (Cardinal Pell) were followed, just two weeks before the trial commenced, by the parliamentary apology to the victims of child sexual abuse. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, ‘Not just as a father, but as a prime minister, I am angry too at the calculating destruction of lives and the abuse of trust, including those who have abused the shield of faith and religion to hide their crimes, a shield that is supposed to protect the innocent, not the guilty. They stand condemned … on behalf of the Australian people, this Parliament and our government … I simply say I believe you, we believe you, your country believes you.’ Such things tend to shift not the legal, but the reputational, burden upon an accused person to prove innocence rather than the prosecution to prove guilt.

Would the verdict have been different if Pell had given evidence? Who can tell? All one can say is that, although the defence seemed to be on strong ground in submitting that the circumstances made the narrative advanced by the prosecution manifestly improbable, that failed to secure the acquittal.

Was the verdict unreasonable? Can it be supported having regard to the evidence? Those are questions for the appeal court. I can only hope and pray that the complainant can find some peace, able to get on with his life, whichever way the appeal goes. Should the appeal fail, I hope and pray that Cardinal Pell, heading for prison, is not the unwitting victim of a wounded nation in search of a scapegoat. Should the appeal succeed, the Victoria Police should review the adequacy of the police investigation of these serious criminal charges.

When the committal proceedings against Pell first commenced in July 2017, Fran Kelly asked me on ABC Radio National Breakfast: ‘Do you have concerns about this case, regardless of the outcome, and how it’s going to affect the Church?’ I answered: ‘Fran, I think this case will be a test of all individuals and all institutions involved. And all we can do is hope that the outcome will be marked by truth, justice, healing, reconciliation and transparency. A huge challenge for my church, and yes a lot will ride on this case. But what is absolutely essential is that the law be allowed to do its work. And let’s wait and see the evidence, and let’s wait and see how it plays out. And let’s hope there can be truth and justice for all individuals involved in these proceedings.’ And that is still my hope.



Frank BrennanFrank Brennan is a Jesuit priest who attended some of the Pell proceedings. This article was first published in The Australian.


George Cardinal Pell

Cardinal George Pell was born in Ballarat, on June 8th 1941, and was educated in that city at Loreto Convent and St Patrick’s College. He studied for the priesthood at Corpus Christi College, Werribee, and Propaganda Fide College, Rome, and was ordained a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Ballarat by Cardinal Agagianian in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, on December 16th 1966.

On May 21st 1987 he was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and Titular Bishop of Scala by Archbishop Sir Frank Little in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

On July 16th 1996 Pope Saint John Paul II announced Cardinal Pell’s appointment as seventh Metropolitan Archbishop of Melbourne. He was installed as Archbishop on August 16th 1996 in a ceremony at the Exhibition Buildings, and received the Pallium from the Pope at St Peter’s in Rome on the feast of Sts Peter and Paul, June 29th 1997.

On March 26th 2001 Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Pell the eighth Metropolitan Archbishop of Sydney. He was installed as Archbishop at St Mary’s Cathedral on May 10th 2001, and the following month received the Pallium from the Pope for the second time at St Peter’s in Rome on the feast of Sts Peter and Paul. His elevation to the Sacred College of Cardinals was announced by the John Paul II on September 28th 2003, who created him Cardinal Priest of the Church of Saint Maria Domenica Mazzarello in Rome.

On February 24th 2014, the Holy Father Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Pell Prefect of the newly-created Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican.

Cardinal Pell holds a Licentiate in Theology from Urban University, Rome (1967), a Masters Degree in Education from Monash University, Melbourne (1982), and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Church History from the University of Oxford (1971). He is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators, and was Visiting Scholar at Campion Hall, Oxford University, in 1979 and at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge University, in 1983. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of St Edmund’s in 2003.

Before becoming Archbishop of Melbourne Cardinal Pell worked as Assistant Priest in the parishes of Swan Hill (1971-2) and Ballarat East (1973-83), as Administrator of Bungaree parish (1984) and as Parish Priest of Mentone and Bishop for the Southern Region of Melbourne (1987-96).

Cardinal Pell served as Director of the Aquinas Campus of the Institute of Catholic Education from 1974 to 1984 and as Principal of the Institute of Catholic Education (now merged into Australian Catholic University) from 1981 to 1984. He was Episcopal Vicar for Education in the Diocese of Ballarat (1973-84), a founding member of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (1973-84), a member of the Academic Board of the State College of Victoria and at different times a member of the Councils of the State College of Victoria – Ballarat, the Ballarat College of Advanced Education, and Signadou College Canberra.

From 1988 to 1997 Cardinal Pell was a member of the National Catholic Education Commission. He was a member of the Bishops’ Committee for Education from 1994 to 1997 (as Secretary) and again from 2000 to 2006 (as Chairman from 2003). In 1989 Cardinal Pell was appointed Chairman of the committee charged with setting up the new Australian Catholic University, and in 1991 to 1995 he served as the University’s Foundation Pro-Chancellor. In 1999 to 2000 he assisted in the establishment of the new city campus of the University in Melbourne. Cardinal Pell was President of the University’s board of owners from1996-2014.

Cardinal Pell’s commitment to Catholic tertiary education is also reflected in the role he played in establishing campuses of the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney, giving the east coast of Australia its first Catholic law school and first Catholic medical school. In 2003 he served as Patron of the capital appeal for Campion College, Australia’s first Catholic liberal arts college.

Christendom College, an American Catholic liberal arts institution based in Virginia, conferred the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters (honoris causa) on Cardinal Pell in 2006, and in 2008 Thomas Aquinas College in California awarded Cardinal Pell the Saint Thomas Aquinas Medallion for his service to the mission and teachings of the Church. The University of Notre Dame Australia conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws on Cardinal Pell in 2010, in recognition of the role he played in establishing campuses of the University in Sydney. In 2014 Australian Catholic University conferred on Cardinal Pell the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the Church in Australia and his appointment as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.

From 1985 to 1987 Cardinal Pell was Rector of Corpus Christi College, the Provincial Seminary for Victoria and Tasmania. In 1990 Pope John Paul II nominated the then Bishop Pell to the Synod of Bishops in Rome on the preparation of priests, where he served as one of the Synod spokesmen and on the Committee which prepared the final Synod Message. He was appointed Apostolic Visitor to the National Seminaries of New Zealand (1994), Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (1995), the Pacific (1996) and Irian Jaya and Sulawesi (1998) by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in the Vatican. In 1999, as Archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell established new facilities for both Corpus Christi College in Carlton and Catholic Theological College in East Melbourne.

Cardinal Pell was Chairman of Caritas Australia, the Catholic Church’s Australian agency for overseas development and relief, from 1988 to 1997. He was a member of the Bishops’ Committee for Justice Development and Peace from 1987 to 1997 and has been a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace from 1990 to 1995 and again from 2002. From 1990 to 2000 he was a member of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and has been Chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Doctrine and Morals since 2001.

Having served as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family for many years, Cardinal Pell was appointed to the Presidential Committee of the Council in 2002. In 2005 he was appointed a member of the Supreme Committee of the Pontifical Missions Societies by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

In November 1998 Cardinal Pell attended the Synod for Oceania in Rome. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to represent the Bishops of Australia and Oceania at the Special Synod for European Bishops in Rome in 1999, and at the Synod of Bishops held in October 2001. Pope Benedict XVI also appointed Cardinal Pell to the Synod of Bishops held in October 2006 to mark the close of the Year of the Eucharist, and to the October 2012 Synod on the New Evangelisation. From 2001 to 2008 he served successive terms on the Council of the Synod of Bishops, and again from 2012. In 2008 Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal Pell one of three President-Delegates of the Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.

In April 2002 Cardinal Pell was named President of the Vox Clara Committee to advise the Congregation for Divine Worship on English translations of liturgical texts. He was appointed a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship in January 2005.

From 2007-14 Cardinal Pell served on the Council of Cardinals on Organisational and Economic Problems of the Holy See. In 2008 he was appointed to the Governing Committee of the International Catholic Migration Commission, which oversees relief work in support of migrants, refugees and displaced persons on behalf of the Holy See. In December 2010 Pope Benedict XVI appointed Cardinal Pell a member of both the newly-established Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, and the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers. He was appointed to the Congregation for Bishops in September 2012.

In April 2005 Cardinal Pell took part in the Conclave of 115 Cardinal Electors which elected His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI as the successor to Pope Saint John Paul II; and in March 2013 Cardinal Pell was a member of the Conclave of 115 Cardinal Electors who elected His Holiness Pope Francis to succeed Pope Benedict XVI.

In April 2013 Cardinal Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to a group of eight cardinals to advise the Holy Father on the government of the universal Church and to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus.

In February 1998 Cardinal Pell attended the Constitutional Convention in Canberra as a delegate appointed by the Prime Minister. He served on the Resolutions Committee responsible for drafting motions put to the Convention and moved the motion in support of the Republican model which was finally adopted by the Convention. On March 21st 2001 he addressed a joint sitting of the Victorian Parliament on the drug problem.

Cardinal Pell was awarded the Centenary Medal by the Australian Government on April 21st 2003, in recognition of his service to the Australian community through the Catholic Church. He was made a Companion in the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2005 for service to the Catholic Church in Australia and internationally, to raising debate on matters of an ethical and spiritual nature, to education, and to social justice. In November 2011 Cardinal Pell was awarded the Medal of Gratitude by the Republic of Poland, in recognition of his support for the Solidarity trade union movement when Poland was under Communist rule.

Cardinal Pell was Grand Prior of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Australian Lieutenancy – Southern, from 1998 to 2001, and Grand-Prior of the Order in New South Wales from 2001-14. Cardinal Pell was created Knight Grand Cross of the Order in 2003 to mark his elevation to the Sacred College of Cardinals.

Cardinal Pell’s long-standing commitment to ecumenism was recognized in 1998 with the conferral of the Grand Cross of Merit of the Order of Saint Lazarus, and his promotion to Ecclesiastic Grand Cross of St Lazarus, the Order’s highest ecclesiastical rank, in 2003. From 2001 to 2007 he served as the Order’s National Chaplain.

In 2007 Cardinal Pell was appointed Conventual Chaplain ad honorem of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. In 2008 he was invested Bailiff Grand Cross of Honour and Devotion in the Order of Malta.

Cardinal Pell became a member of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of St George in February 2011, being invested Bailiff Grand Cross of Justice in a ceremony at the Oratory Church in London.

Cardinal Pell’s work in inter-faith relations has included attendance at the Asia-Pacific Interfaith Dialogue (originally established as the Australian-Indonesian summit on inter-religious dialogue and terrorism) in 2004, 2006 and 2007. On each occasion, he attended the Dialogue as part of the official Australian delegation led by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

In 2008, as part of his commitment to encouraging the practice of religious pilgrimage and to supporting pilgrims, Cardinal Pell led a group Australian dioceses in acquiring a building for an Australian pilgrim centre in Rome. Named Domus Australia, the centre was officially opened by Pope Benedict XVI on 19 October 2011, in the presence of the bishops of Australia gathered in Rome for their ad limina apostolorum pilgrimage.

Cardinal Pell as Archbishop both in Melbourne and Sydney has been involved in leading pilgrimages of young Australians to World Youth Days in Rome, Toronto, Cologne and Madrid. Following the Toronto World Youth Day the Archdiocese of Sydney examined the possibility of hosting the event, placing a formal bid for this honour with the Holy See in 2005. The success of this bid was announced at the conclusion of World Youth Day in Cologne in August 2005. The twenty-third World Youth Day was held in Sydney from 15-20 July 2008, forming the largest gathering in Australia’s history. Over 110,000 registered pilgrims from more than 170 nations, including Pope Benedict XVI, travelled to Sydney for the occasion, together with another 123,000 registered pilgrims from Australia. 26 Cardinals, 420 Bishops, and 4,000 priests were also in attendance. Cardinal Pell celebrated the Opening Mass at Barangaroo on Sydney Harbour before 150,000 pilgrims on 15 July. At the Papal Arrival, 500,000 people welcomed Pope Benedict on his first visit to Australia, and the final Mass at Randwick Racecourse, which was celebrated by the Holy Father on 20 July, attracted over 400,000 people.

Cardinal Pell’s interest in and support for young people, marriage and families has been demonstrated not only in his preaching and many public statements on these matters, but also in his involvement in founding the Australian campus of the international John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family; the institution of Australia’s first independent commissioner to handle sexual abuse complaints against clergy; and in the creation of the Mary of the Cross Centre in Melbourne to assist families with a member affected by drug or alcohol abuse. As Archbishop of Melbourne he commissioned the production of To Know, Worship and Love, a series of texts for use in religious education in Catholic schools. The series continues to be used in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, and was officially launched and mandated for use in the schools of the Archdiocese of Sydney at the end of 2003.

As Archbishop in Melbourne and Sydney Cardinal Pell established Life Offices to promote deeper respect for human life from conception until natural death. In 2003 he inaugurated a competitive bi-annual grant from the Archdiocese of Sydney to support medical research into the development and application of treatments using adult stem cells. In 2008 Cardinal Pell’s work in defending the dignity of human life was recognised with the conferral of the US$100,000 Mysterium Vitae Award by the Archdiocese of Seoul in South Korea.

Cardinal Pell has written widely in religious and secular magazines, learned journals and newspapers in Australia and overseas, and regularly speaks on television and radio. He was editor of Light, the magazine of the Ballarat diocese from 1979 to 1984, and from 2001-14 he was a weekly columnist for Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. Cardinal Pell is a well-known public speaker, who has lectured in the United States of America, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Croatia, Canada and Korea, and every State of Australia.

In September 1996 Oxford University Press published Issues of Faith and Morals, written by Cardinal Pell for senior secondary classes and parish groups. Other publications include The Sisters of St Joseph in Swan Hill 1922-72 (1972), Catholicism in Australia (1988), Rerum Novarum: One Hundred Years Later (1992), Issues of Faith and Morals (OUP, 1996), Catholicism and the Architecture of Freedom (1999), Be Not Afraid (2004), God and Caesar: Selected Essays on Religion, Politics and Society (2007), Free for All: Negotiating Freedom in a World of Individuals (2009), Test Everything: Hold Fast to What is Good (2010), and One Christian Perspective on Climate Change (2011). Cardinal Pell’s most recent publication is Contemplating Christ with Luke, a book of homilies on St Luke’s Gospel, published by Connor Court in 2012.

In earlier years Cardinal Pell was a keen sports coach in soccer, Aussie Rules and rowing. He is Vice Patron of the Richmond Football Club and a long term supporter and member of the Club since he signed to play with them in 1959.

A popular biography of Cardinal Pell by senior journalist Tess Livingstone was published by Duffy and Snellgrove in 2002, and an expanded American edition of this biography was released by Ignatius Press in 2004.

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