Pell #2

George Pell: This saga has a long way to go yet

Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne County Court. Picture: Getty
Cardinal George Pell arrives at Melbourne County Court. Picture: Getty

While Cardinal George Pell is under lock and key, awaiting sentencing for guilty verdicts on five serious child sexual abuse charges, ongoing unease in some quarters about the soundness of those verdicts makes them worthy of scrutiny.

Only two options present themselves — first, that Pell is a sacrilegious hypocrite, with the agility of Houdini; or second, that an alarming miscarriage of justice has played out at the hands of the Victorian justice system. There can be no middle ground. The saga now shifts to the Victorian Court of Appeal.

The guilty verdict was delivered in December by a unanimous jury, in a properly constituted court, after an earlier jury was dismissed on September 20 because it split 10-2 in Pell’s favour. Hence the second trial, in which many people, whether they like or loathe Pell and all he stands for, believe went badly wrong.

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If so, the jury were not the only ones to get it wrong, nor the most culpable. Hard questions need to be asked about police and judicial processes, including how and why certain allegations ever made it to court, let alone to trial.

During the first trial, observers in the gallery claimed: “Even if he didn’t do it he deserves to be punished. He was in charge of the whole show’’. How much did such sentiments influence the verdicts, if at all? Australian justice cannot sink so low.

Studied closely, the five convictions of child sexual abuse are grotesque, implausible and break the bounds of credulity. In religious terms, they would be grave sacrileges.

Four offences purportedly took place over a six minute period in the sacristy (robing room) of the cathedral in late 1996, against two 13 year-old boys, immediately after the Sunday Solemn Mass. The fifth supposedly took place at around the same time of day, also on a Sunday Mass, in the cathedral corridors about a month later, against one boy.

The logistics were incredible. When Pell became archbishop of Melbourne in August 1996, St Patrick’s was closed for renovations, leaving only two dates on which he celebrated Sunday Mass at the Cathedral — December 15 and December 22nd. Yet the charges, initially at least, related to incidents in 1996, allegedly “a month apart”.

Pell’s counsel, Robert Richter QC raised the issue of timing at the opening of the second trial, noting that the police investigation failed to establish proper dates and that after the defence did so, the prosecution changed the date of the fifth alleged offence to February the following year.

Throughout the ordeal, not a single witness backed the accuser, a man now in his mid-30s who also, sources close to the cardinal claim, reported another Melbourne priest for abuse. One senior legal figure, with no connections to the case, told Pell he had never heard of such a trial proceeding without a single witness.

Because the renovations were incomplete by the end of 1996, Pell did not use the relatively private Archbishop’s sacristy. He was in the busy priests’ sacristy, with priests, altar servers and others coming and going.

It is extremely unfortunate, some of Pell’s friends believe, that the two juries hearing the case were taken around the cathedral on a quiet weekday when it is usually all but deserted, rather than having the chance to see its hustle and bustle on Sunday mornings.

Four witnesses, appearing for the prosecution, testified that Pell was never alone in the sacristy, the door of which was open. The witnesses were Monsignor Charles Portelli, who was the Archbishop’s Master of Ceremonies and the former Cathedral sacristan Max Potter and two former servers.

In May last year, during the Committal hearing, Magistrate Belinda Wallington, who sent the Cardinal to trial over the Cathedral charges noted that “If a jury accepted the evidence of Monsignor Portelli and Mr Potter that the archbishop was never in the sacristy robed and alone, and that choirboys could never access the sacristy keys because they were always locked when unused, then a jury could not convict.’’

The fifth charge was even more bizarre. It claimed that more a month after the initial incident, again after Mass as the liturgical procession was returning to the sacristy area, Pell lurched across to the complainant and briefly grabbed the complainant’s genitals through the complainant’s robes. Not a single witness corroborated that allegation, either, although such behaviour would have been seen by dozens of people and provoked uproar.

According to the evidence, Pell was fully vested when he committed the crimes of which he was found guilty. Over his trousers and shirt, he wore an alb — a long, straight white garment, extending from shoulder to the floor, with no openings and no splits at the front or sides that would have allowed the garment to be moved aside, as alleged. Over the alb, Pell wore a cincture — a thick cord tied several times around his waist, and over that a heavy chasuble (the outer robe). Those garments, worn by every priest at Mass, have spiritual significance. The choir boys were also vested in robes over their shirts and trousers.

The timing was odd for another reason. The scandal of clerical abuse was a major issue in the news in late 1996 in Melbourne after the inglorious legacy of Pell’s predecessor, Archbishop Frank Little. Pell had launched the Melbourne Response in October 1996, a system to deal with the problem led by an independent QC and the first of its kind for the Catholic Church in the world. In that atmosphere, the notion of Pell committing grotesque offences in a semipublic place with an open door (a point not disputed by the prosecution) at a busy time defies logic.

During the committal hearing, Ms Wallington dismissed even more grotesque charges against Pell, dating back decades before 1996 to provincial Victoria. As Richter said in his summing up in the Committal hearing, one charge that was subsequently dismissed owed “more to the watching of Satanist movies’’.

It was extreme, violent and satanic, lending weight to the view that Pell has been the victim of a vile stitch up. If so, it needs to be uncovered. In the committal hearing, Richter said had the police made proper investigations (as the defence did) they would have discovered no evidence that Pell was ever at the institution where the alleged Satanic incident occurred.

Questions also need to be asked about why Victoria Police, set up a “get Pell’’ Operation Tethering in March 2013 — a year before he was appointed Vatican Treasurer. At the time the operation started no complaints had been made against the Cardinal.

However grim things look for Pell today, this saga has a long way to unravel yet.

Tess Livingstone’s biography of George Pell was published in 2002. She was asked for and provided a character reference for his trial that was not tendered.