ROME: Over four long nights, I sat through many hours of accusations by counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, Gail Furness SC, that Cardinal George Pell was complicit in or covered up the disgusting sexual abuse of children in Ballarat where he served for many years as a priest, then as an auxiliary to Archbishop Frank Little in Melbourne from 1987.
Dr Pell was directly and repeatedly accused of lying to the Commission, of covering up evidence of sexual abuse of children, and of blame-shifting to exonerate himself.
These allegations were broadcast live online to Australia, were featured in press, radio and TV coverage, and formed the basis of the most damaging allegations of criminal activity and impropriety against a religious leader that I have heard in my life.
Cardinal Pell’s repeated denials were mocked and ridiculed. He was subject to vicious character assassination arising from these allegations in the Australian media, particularly social media.
It was only in the last half hour of these four days of evidence that Cardinal Pell’s legal representative in Sydney was able to tender evidence to the Commission which demolished any suggestion that he personally knew of sexual abuse in Ballarat, or had stood by while the perpetrators – including priests and brothers – were able to molest children in Ballarat, and later in Melbourne.
In Rome time, this evidence was given after 2am in the morning after most of the journalists in Rome covering the story had left to get some sleep.
The evidence led at this early hour of the morning by Dr Pell’s legal representative included affidavits and diary entries which were relevant to the accusations made against him. These were potentially available to the Commission itself, so if had had done its job, these would have been led by the Commission.
The first referred to the notorious paedophile, Gerard Ridsdale, now serving a lengthy term of imprisonment for raping and molesting many children in various parishes in Ballarat where he had been assigned by the then bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns.
Pell’s counsel referred to a witness named Dr Peter Evans, a psychiatrist, who gave evidence that he had Ridsdale as a patient briefly in the 1970s. According to Dr Evans, he was later visited by police who told him that they did not intend to charge Ridsdale with child sexual abuse, but they believed he had been involved in some abuse of children.
The point was clear: if the police did not have evidence about Ridsdale which warranted his prosecution, why should Pell have known about it, let alone had any share of responsibility?
His counsel then tabled a document which the Cardinal wrote to his bishop in 1979, reporting his study leave from May to August that year. In this letter to Bishop Mulkearns dated 25 September 1979, he said he had been asked to become editor of the diocesan magazine, Light. He expressed reluctance to take the position because of his other commitments.
Asked what these commitments were, Dr Pell said he held a full-time position as head of Aquinas College, Ballarat.
Asked about his role at Aquinas College, he explained that it was a full-time job. Additionally, from the time of his appointment to the Institute of Catholic Education (ICE), a body which spanned campuses across Victoria, he spent an average of two days a week in Melbourne.
He was also questioned about diary entries which show that on the same day that one of his complainants had alleged met him in the Cathedral presbytery in Ballarat, he was lecturing in the morning at Aquinas College, attending ICE meetings in Melbourne in the afternoon, and attending another meeting in Ballarat in the evening.
Pell added that he was not living at the Cathedral Presbytery, visited it infrequently, and had not been there on the day in question.
Pell was questioned whether he had ever visited Fr Ridsdale in any of his parish postings. In every case, he said he had not, and in fact, he had never been to Inglewood or Edenhope, towns where Ridsdale had been the subject of repeated complaints of sexual misconduct from parents.
He also tendered a statement from a young priest in Ballarat at the time who, like Dr Pell, had been a consultor to the bishop and had attended regular consultors’ meetings at which the appointment of parish priests was confirmed.
This priest said that in his view, the business at the consultors’ meetings had often clearly been predetermined beforehand, while Bishop Mulkearns was extremely secretive about clergy matters, presenting the consultors with a fait accompli.
In relation to his time as an Auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne, Dr Pell was accused of covering up the misconduct and sexual abuse of a priest from the Doveton parish, Fr Searson. Pell had earlier said that he had never been told by the then Archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Little, of complaints about sexual abuse against Searson over many years.
He also said he had not been properly briefed by the Catholic Education Office, which had responsibility for administration and staffing of Catholic schools, regarding its knowledge of Fr Searson.
Cardinal Pell’s legal counsel tendered earlier evidence to the Royal Commission from the then head of the Catholic Education Office, Fr Tom Doyle, that he had been unable to persuade Archbishop Little to remove or discipline Fr Searson.
Fr Doyle said in evidence that he had approached the Vicar-General who had been unable to help. He explicitly confirmed that he had not approached the Auxiliary Bishops, including Dr Pell, as they were outside the chain of command and would have had no influence on the Archbishop.
There was further evidence in relation to a meeting which Dr Pell had with a group of teachers at the Catholic primary school in Doveton. At this meeting, the teachers at the school, who had made written complaints about the priest’s misconduct, suggested that the priest be given “a second chance”.
While he had deep misgivings about Searson, Dr Pell said he had no grounds to recommend his removal. However, he had taken the quite unusual step at the time of speaking to both the Vicar-General and to the Archbishop, both of whom had administrative authority over Searson, about the complaints.
Although Dr Pell did not know it, it has since become clear that both the Archbishop and Vicar-General were well aware of prior complaints about Searson.
Counsel then tabled documents showing that after his appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Pell had forcibly removed Searson as parish priest, after an inquiry by the Church’s internal disciplinary body established by Dr Pell, despite the priest’s strong opposition.
The priest subsequently appealed his removal to Rome. The removal was maintained by Archbishop Pell.
The way these proceedings were conducted raise fundamental doubts over the Commission’s processes.
While Royal Commissions are not courts of law and are not bound by the rules of evidence, they are nonetheless expected to apply the presumption of innocence to any person against whom allegations are made.