Independent inquiry exonerates Archbishop George Pell

Independent inquiry exonerates Archbishop George Pell

Peter Westmore

The Inquiry conducted by a former Victorian judge, Alec Southwell QC, has dismissed allegations of sexual abuse against Archbishop George Pell, leading to his immediate resumption as Archbishop of Sydney.

Dr Pell stepped aside in August, after the Melbourne Age telephoned him to question him about anonymous allegations of misconduct at a youth camp in 1961.

Archbishop Pell totally rejected the allegations, calling them "lies", but announced that he would step aside, pending an independent inquiry, "for the good of the Church and to preserve the dignity of the office of Archbishop".

Despite this, the disgusting allegations were "leaked" to the media, then widely reported in the press, on radio and TV, which clearly relished the Church's deep embarrassment.

Formal inquiry

The allegations eventually became the subject of a formal inquiry, conducted under the Church's Towards Healing protocol which sets down guidelines for handling such matters.

Under its terms of reference, Mr Southwell was required to "make such enquiries and hold such hearings as he considers are necessary and appropriate in order for him to be satisfied as to whether or not the complaint has been established."

The inquiry took place over a five day period (30 September to 4 October), after which Mr Southwell prepared a lengthy report, which was immediately published by the Church's National Committee for Professional Standards, which administers the Towards Healing protocol.

Mr Southwell concluded that "bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defence occasioned by the very long delay, some valid criticism of the complainant's credibility, the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent, I find I am not 'satisfied that the complaint has been established', to quote the words of the principal term of reference."

Archbishop Pell issued a statement immediately after the release of the inquiry's report on 14 October, saying, "I am grateful to God that this ordeal is over and that the inquiry has exonerated me of all allegations.

"The Honourable A.J. Southwell QC was appointed to determine, under specific Terms of Reference, whether or not the complaint was established. In his findings released today, the Commissioner has gone as far as the Terms of Reference allowed him to go in exonerating me."

Reflecting on the personal burden which the allegations had imposed on him, Archbishop Pell said, "My Catholic convictions sustained me during those dark weeks. I found great strength in regular prayer and in reflecting on the great Christian teachings about suffering, death and resurrection.

"My confidence that God loves us all without exception, and that He asks of us justice, truth and a compassion which bears no one ill will, was never shaken. In addition. I was immensely consoled by the love, support and loyalty of family and friends."

Indicating his full co-operation with the inquiry, the Archbishop said he had "submitted myself to the rigorous scrutiny of this five-day inquiry, which produced 561 pages of transcript. It heard from 15 witnesses, and considered statements from another 17 witnesses."

He added, "I have faxed to Archbishop Philip Wilson, co-chair with Brother Michael Hill of the Towards Healing process and co- appointer of the inquiry, my consent to the public release of the full transcript of the inquiry and all the exhibits."

Dr Pell expressed his deep gratitude to "all those who supported me in many different ways: my family and friends, my defence team, the Catholic community, lay people, bishops, priests and religious, and Christians of all other denominations, people of no religion and in a particular way, people who explained to me that, although they differed from me in matters of religion, morality or social life, they wished to offer me their support."

He concluded, "I have just celebrated Mass for all those caught up in the tragedy of Bali, and look forward to being in the office tomorrow, resuming my work of spreading the Catholic faith, and celebrating Mass on Sundays, as usual, at St Mary's Cathedral."

Media conference

At a media conference convened after the release of the report, Dr Pell emphasised that he bore no ill-will towards the complainant, and continued to pray for him.

Asked whether he considered there should be any changes to a situation where people can make anonymous allegations against public figures and remain anonymous even when the charges are not substantiated, the Archbishop replied, "I think that's one of the factors we should be looking at. I do believe that there's always an element of unfairness when the name of the person accused is published before even there might be charges."

He diplomatically said it was "remarkable" that there had been a two month delay between when the complainant made his statement to Towards Healing, and when he was informed of the complaint.

He said, "I think I would have anticipated that I would have been informed earlier than that. That'll be one of a number of things that I'll be discussing with those who are in charge of Towards Healing". Asked whether it had damaged his case, Dr Pell said, "It certainly didn't help it."

While Archbishop Pell would be expected to believe that this ordeal is a consequence of upholding the truth, the affair shows the high price which must be paid for upholding Christian values in a society which has largely abandoned them.

Related news:
Zenit News Service 19 Oct 2002 - Archbishop Pell: A Case Study in False Accusations

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