Why can't Cardinal Pell's media critics let go?

There’s a phenomenon in psychology called the “true believer syndrome”. The paradigm example is analysed in a 1956 psychology classic called When Prophecy Fails. A Chicago housewife predicted that the world was going to be inundated by a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954. At midnight, though, a flying saucer would come to whisk true believers away.

Unhappily, the moment came and went without a close encounter. Its leader then announced that the true believers “had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction”. Failure did not discourage the group. It found other explanations.

The researchers wrote: “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

Which more or less describes the perplexity experienced by journalists who were so certain that Cardinal George Pell was guilty of committing child sexual abuse that they wrote books about it -- and then he was exonerated by Australia’s High Court in a 7-0 decision.

How were they to deal with the cognitive dissonance? They knew that the guilty verdict in the jury trial and the Court of Appeal judgement would be affirmed. And then the High Court turned their world upside down. It was tough. Deeply distressing. Gut-wrenching. Something had to be done. So they unsaddled their tidy narrative about a cruel, arrogant and deceptive bishop who had abused choir boys and galloped off on a tale about a negligent bishop who ignored complaints.

At least this was the strategy employed by Melissa Davey, The Guardian’s Melbourne bureau chief. She claims to be “the only journalist to have covered Cardinal Pell’s appearances at the child sexual abuse royal commission, as well as the entirety of his committal hearing, mistrial, retrial, and appeals.”


When Pell was found guilty she began writing a book with the working title, “A Fair Trial: Cardinal George Pell”.

Inconveniently for her the High Court decided that it had not been a fair trial after all, so she had to settle for something blander: The Case of George Pell. It was published in August, only four months after Pell walked free.

And no matter what the seven judges of the High Court had to say, Davey clearly does not believe that Pell is innocent -- although she doesn’t say so outright.

“What I have learned through covering the royal commission and the Pell case, trawling through research into abuse and violence, and talking to various experts,” she concludes, “is that people whom society perceive as being ‘good’, ‘admirable’, and ‘respectable’ can and do commit crimes.”

This is a point that she drives home by relating the experience of a woman, Georgie Burg, who was repeatedly raped as a 13-year-old by an Anglican priest in his church.

One of the defence’s arguments in Pell’s case that Burg found hard to accept was that Pell would have to have been mad to take the risk of abusing the choirboys. But he was not insane, the defence team argued. Why would he take such a risk, knowing there were other people around who might walk in at any time?

‘Because they can,’ Burg says bluntly. ‘Because they are every bit as dangerous as sharks. They’re unpredictable, they were able to do whatever they wanted, and knew that no one would hold them accountable. Because they were powerful, it was a game. They found it satisfying in some sick, twisted way.’

Davey is clearly drawing a parallel. Is the crime implausible? Yes, but arrogant, powerful men are amazingly resourceful.

Another argument put forward by Pell’s sympathisers is that he did not groom the alleged victims. But Davey reports the views of a forensic psychologist who says that not all child sexual abuse involves grooming. “Some people, however, will say to themselves, I have this interest and I’m a person who is capable and smart, and they will apply this capability to abuse children. If they make the choice to act on it, they use their skills to do so and to avoid getting caught. They’re the same skills that enabled them to be a respected, well-regarded person in society.”

Again, the implication is clear. Notwithstanding the High Court’s analysis, Pell could still have done it. Because he looks innocent, he's probably guilty.

Davey is not the only true believer. Why can’t she and her colleagues let go after the question of Pell’s guilt has been settled by the highest court of the land?  There are several reasons.

First, and perfectly understandable, is sympathy for the victims. Davey was deeply emotionally involved. Hundreds of lives had been ruined by predatory clergy. Her book is dedicated to “to all those who were ignored, disbelieved, or threatened by people with the power to do something, but who instead chose to be complicit.”

Second, there is a strong desire for a scapegoat in the community which seems to have infected Australian journalists. The crimes of so many clergy and the negligence of so many bishops had to be punished. And as the tallest of the tall poppies, Pell was the obvious candidate.

But as Pell said on the day that he was released: “… my trial was not a referendum on the Catholic Church; nor a referendum on how Church authorities in Australia dealt with the crime of paedophilia in the Church. The point was whether I had committed these awful crimes, and I did not.”

Third, a large number of journalists and colleagues shared Davey’s Pell-phobia. As the authors of When Prophecy Fails, pointed out, a shared conviction is more plausible. “The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of dis-confirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct."

And quite a few journalists were waiting for the same spaceship. Astonishingly, none of them has apologised; no one has said “I got it wrong”. (Sorry, that’s not true. After Pell appeared to be callous and unfeeling at a Royal Commission hearing, conservative columnist Andrew Bolt expressed his disgust and then apologised. But that was in 2016. No one lately.)

The enduring obsession of the media with Pell and sex abuse became obvious at this year's Walkley Awards, the highest honour in Australian journalism. Lucie Morris-Marr’s book about the Pell saga, Fallen, won the 2020 Book Award and Sarah Ferguson, Nial Fulton and Tony Jones’s ABC documentary about Catholic sex abuse, Revelation, won the Documentary Award.

The awards were announced on November 20, seven months after Pell had been exonerated by the High Court.

As the grizzled newspaper editor said in one of John Wayne’s last films: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."


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