Cardinal George Pell and the High Court of public opinion

For at least five years, Cardinal George Pell was pilloried in the media and in online forums as an enabler of sexual abuse and as an abuser himself. Despite his consistent and vehement denials, these allegations culminated in his trial and conviction in 2018 on five counts of historic sexual abuse.

He was the highest-ranking Catholic cleric ever to be convicted of this offense.

On April 7 the High Court of Australia overturned his conviction and he walked free. He had spent 405 days in prison for crimes he did not commit. To all intents and purposes he had been declared innocent by the highest court in the land.

But his ordeal was just beginning.

A month later, on May 7, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released unredacted reports about sexual abuse in Ballarat and Melbourne. They had been withheld for two and a half years so that they would not prejudice the court proceedings against the Cardinal.

It would be an understatement to say that these documents are damaging. They suggest, without actually saying so, that he is a liar. “This is the portrait of a deceitful man,” writes David Marr, one of Pell’s most persistent critics, in The Guardian. “The commissioners condemn key claims in the cardinal’s evidence as implausible, inconceivable, untenable and unacceptable.”

The Royal Commission, in effect, has confirmed the judgement of the Court of Public Opinion. Pell’s conviction as a lying scumbag has been upheld and reputation as a man of honour and integrity has been trashed. “The black marks are gone. The secrets are out. George Pell knew,” writes Louise Milligan, the ABC journalist who has campaigned for years to smear him as a child abuser. 

Standards of proof

But do these findings hold water? The Royal Commission says that the standard of proof must be based on a 1938 decision by the High Court, Briginshaw v Briginshaw.  “The more serious the allegation, the higher the degree of probability that is required before the Royal Commission can be reasonably satisfied as to the truth of that allegation,” the report says (page 5). Since Cardinal George Pell’s principal asset is his reputation, a very high standard is required.

I don’t think that it reaches it.  

What Pell stands accused of is this. As a young priest he was a “consultor” to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, of the Ballarat diocese, home to some of the worst predator priests. He was in a position to know about various cases of egregious abuse and he did nothing to save the children. He was only interested in protecting the reputation of his Church and climbing the ecclesiastical ladder. When he was questioned under oath in the Royal Commission’s hearings, he denied that he knew. But, according to the just-released, unredacted documents, he did know. He lied.

It is a damning charge.

If it is true.

But, contrary to what the media has reported, the transcripts and even the text of the official report do not support the conclusions reached by the Royal Commission.

To begin with, it is significant that a previous investigation by the Victorian Parliament released in 2013, “Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non Government Organisations” did not accuse Cardinal Pell of failing to tell the truth, even though it covered the same ground as the Royal Commission. It, too, was very critical of Catholic leadership, especially of Bishop Mulkearns, of Ballarat, and Archbishop Frank Little, of Melbourne. But not notably critical of Pell. (page 166) 

The badlands of Ballarat

Some background is necessary.

For reasons which remain obscure, paedophilia flourished in the Ballarat diocese in the 1960s. It was a horror show and the lives of many children were ruined.

Apart from abuse by several religious at Christian Brothers schools, the Royal Commission gave special attention to four priests: Monsignor John Day, Paul David Ryan, Robert Claffey, and Gerald Ridsdale. Monsignor Day died before charge were laid. Ryan, Claffey and Ridsdale were eventually laicised and convicted.

Of these, Ridsdale was by far the worst offender. Ordained in 1961, he abused hundreds of children in England, Australia and the United States. He held 16 different appointments over a period of 29 years as a priest. Investigations showed that bishops moved him from job to job after complaints about his behaviour with young boys.

From 1977 Father George Pell, as he was then, was a consultor to Bishop Mulkearns. The consultors were a handful of priests of the diocese who advised the bishop on property matters and movements of other priests. The Royal Commission spent a good deal of time attempting to understand how it assisted the bishop. It assumed that the bishop should have been transparent in explaining the reasons for transfers of priests. Since Mulkearns knew of Ridsdale’s crimes, as did some of the senior consultors, it deduced that Pell should have known as well.

We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns did not deceive his consultors. Cardinal Pell’s evidence that ‘paedophilia was not mentioned’ and that the ‘true’ reason was not given is not accepted. It is implausible given the matters set out above that Bishop Mulkearns did not inform those at the meeting of at least complaints of sexual abuse of children having been made. …

We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the Diocese and from parish work because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. A contrary position is not tenable. (Report of Case Study No. 28, pp 312-313)

Pell, in other words, has perjured himself, as in his sworn testimony he insisted that he did not know that Ridsdale was abusing children.

Who is right?

The final text of the report

The crucial meeting

The report’s analysis of a meeting on September 14, 1982 about moving Ridsdale from Mortlake parish to the Catholic Inquiry Centre in Sydney is crucial to its argument. Nineteen pages are devoted (pp 295-313) to a forensic analysis of “What the College of Consultors knew”. It found that the consultors, including Father Pell - especially Father Pell - knew Ridsdale was being transferred yet again because he had abused children. It gives 10 reasons and concludes: “A contrary position is not tenable.”

First, some background about governance in the Catholic Church. It is important to understand that a diocese is not a democracy. Bishops may have different styles, but ultimately their mandate is absolute and normally unquestionable. Priests, especially a relatively junior priest like Pell, had no authority to challenge their bishop.

Bishop Mulkearns was an example of the very worst kind of Church leader. He did not explain his decisions and was notorious for playing his cards very close to his chest. Cardinal Pell described him as dishonest, duplicitous and secretive.

Here is how Father Eric Bryant, the scribe of the consultors’ meetings, described him to the Royal Commission.

“[Let me] give you my understanding of the way Bishop Mulkearns worked. Circumspect, would be my description. In one sense, if you were involved in something, he would tell you what he thought you needed to know. If you weren't involved in it, you weren't involved in it. And so, if he went to meetings, they could be any meetings, that could be the Diocesan Religious Council, and if you saw him that night or the next day, he wouldn't discuss what they had discussed.

He did have, in his office at diocesan offices, and also in his home office, his own typewriters; he had one in each place. He had his own locked files in his office, and it was quite clear that that was his office, that was sanctuary. He would dictate letters sometimes for Bernadette, the office secretary, to type, but it would not be uncommon for him to type his own, and certainly he would work reasonably long hours at night in his own residential office where he had his own typewriter and would do a lot of his own correspondence. (Case Study 28 - Transcript - Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat - Day C137 – 10122015.)

This confirms Pell’s account of the bishop’s dysfunctional management style - but it was not cited by the Royal Commission’s report.

Second, Pell acknowledged in his testimony that he knew Ridsdale was being moved because of “a problem with homosexuality”. This was not in the minutes of the meeting but it was also the recollection of Father Bryant.

The Royal Commission worried this like a dog with a bone. First of all, adult homosexuality was not sufficient reason to shift a priest hundreds of miles away to Sydney. Second, there were rumours about Ridsdale’s activity with children were floating around. Third, Pell knew that other priests had had similar “problems”. Fourth, Bishop Mulkearns would have told his consultors the truth: that paedophilia occasioned the transfer.

Ergo, Pell must have known and must be lying.

The trouble with this reasoning is that it is flatly contradicted not only by Pell, but by Father Bryant. “Father Bryant was adamant he did not conclude from anything said at the September 1982 meeting that Ridsdale was a paedophile,” says the report, “and it was not open to Counsel Assisting to suggest from his evidence that Father Bryant had this understanding at the time of the meeting.”

Besides, the Royal Commission’s attitude to homosexuality is very different to the attitude of Catholic priests in 1982. Nowadays homosexuality is, rightly or wrongly, a socially acceptable lifestyle. Forty years ago, it was regarded by Catholic clerics as debased and shameful. Removing a priest from the temptation to have sex with other men would have been imperative. If Mulkearns had muttered something about “a problem with homosexuality”, that would have been reason enough.    

Finally, as Pell told the Royal Commission, Mulkearns was anything but candid.

Cardinal Pell submitted that Counsel Assisting cannot rely on a litany of examples of Bishop Mulkearns’ deceptive behaviour and also overlook such matters in relation to the September 1982 meeting. …  It is entirely consistent with Bishop Mulkearns’ years of cover-up.

Despite Pell’s robust rebuttal of its allegations, the Royal Commission found that he had not been truthful:

Cardinal Pell’s evidence that ‘paedophilia was not mentioned’ and that the ‘true’ reason was not given is not accepted. It is implausible … that Bishop Mulkearns did not inform those at the meeting of at least complaints of sexual abuse of children having been made.

Presumption of innocence?

This finding is flatly contradicted by the sworn testimony of both Bryant and Pell, is anachronistic in its attitude towards homosexuality, and is based wholly on a cascade of inferences. According to Briginshaw, “‘reasonable satisfaction’ should not be produced by inexact proofs, indefinite testimony, or indirect inferences”. Furthermore, “weight is given to the presumption of innocence and exactness of proof is expected”.

Were these criteria observed by the Royal Commission in concluding that Cardinal Pell had not been truthful? No, they weren’t. In its examination of the Ridsdale affair, the Royal Commission was hostile, unfair - and therefore unjust.

The Royal Commission’s report has been painful for the whole country, but especially for Catholics. It is a matter of deep shame that men of the cloth sexually abused and tormented children. Australians should be grateful that it has dragged these festering crimes into the daylight and demanded justice for the victims.

But that does not mean that we should shrug our shoulders at its unfairness to the very man who, paradoxically, did more to put a stop to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Australia than anyone else – Cardinal George Pell.


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