The remarkable part of George Pell’s royal commission testimony is not its insensitivity but what it asks people to believe. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Cardinal George Pell’s royal commission testimony

Cardinal George Pell, second from left, arrives at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome this week, to testify via videolink.
Cardinal George Pell, second from left, arrives at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome this week, to testify via videolink.
Credit: AP

Cardinal George Pell asked us to believe some extraordinary things this week. Through 18 hours of royal commission evidence, he asked us to believe that he knew nothing of the country’s worst paedophile, despite sitting in the meetings that allowed his offending to be concealed and perpetuated. He asked us to believe that the times were different, that he was incurious, that it was someone else’s responsibility.

Pell asked us to believe that he had been lied to by priests, bishops, the vicar general, the archbishop of Melbourne and the Catholic Education Office. He asked us to believe that the serial deceptions by countless colleagues owed to the fact that they each feared Pell was unusually decent and would rat them out.

Pell asked us to believe that he had no idea of the gravity of one priest’s offences, a bizarre and brazen abuser of children for more than a decade, despite a long list of grievances put to him in 1989. In fact, Pell asked us to believe that he was just about the only man within the Victorian Catholic Church to have not known, subject as he was to a vast conspiracy of deceit.

So successful were these lies that Pell managed to spectacularly climb the church hierarchy without ever knowing a thing. This week, a huge pile of evidence was built up in front of Pell and he looked at it as if to say it wasn’t there.

At one point, Pell was asked if he thought he was subject to a witch-hunt. “I must confess,” he said, “the idea has occurred to me.”

1 . Public attention focussed

In Melbourne’s Federation Square there is a giant screen that rises above the public plaza. It occupies some 65 square metres. Normally, it is reserved for sport and art installations. This week, it featured Cardinal Pell’s Rome testimony, from the Hotel Quirinale. It didn’t attract large crowds. People were relaxing in deck chairs or sipping coffee. Tourists took photos. Children gambolled around their parents’ legs. It was a Monday morning.

But drama was unfurling on the screen. It was a slow-paced drama, admittedly, wreathed in legalese and the patient rephrasing of questions. The video feed fuzzily rendered Pell’s outline. But it was compelling. Vital. Here, in the legal questioning of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, sitting in Sydney, we were witnessing years of work. Here, on the big screen, was the highest-ranking church official in the world to be subject to such examination. And things weren’t looking good.

When Pell’s testimony finished for the day, the screen switched to broadcasting live coverage of the Oscars. It was midday. People gathered for Chris Rock’s opening monologue. Then the nominations. Spotlight – the sober dramatisation of The Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse and cover-up by the Catholic Church in its city – was up for six gongs, including Best Picture. It won. Backstage, one of the film’s producers told reporters: “I hope that you journalists in here and throughout the world will help resonate our message all the way to the Vatican, and maybe we can have some real change ... That’s what we hope to accomplish. That’s what this is really about for all of us is to talk about this film and what happened, because these things are still happening. The story of Spotlight has really just begun.” At the end of the film, just prior to the credits, runs a lengthy list of cities touched by concealed church abuse. Melbourne is one. So is Ballarat. And Sydney and Adelaide and Canberra and Perth and 16 other Australian communities.

Not long after the Oscar win, families of victims texted me to relay their excitement about the film’s award. It felt like high acknowledgment. Vindication.

“Wasn’t it great to see Spotlight get Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards?” read one. “Go all the good and brave journos of this world! Do you think Pell has watched it?”

2 . Ballarat's offenders

Great things were expected of George Pell. Born in Ballarat in 1941 to a working-class family, Pell was athletic, assured and ambitious. He excelled in the classroom, in the cox and on the footy oval. He came close to signing for Richmond, but chose the seminary instead. The decision has been handsomely repaid. In 1963 Pell was selected for study in Rome, where his lectures were delivered in Latin. His Roman anointment began early, and he was ordained in the city in 1966 at St Peter’s Basilica. At just 25, Pell had already come a long way from Victoria’s goldfields. Here he was, being consecrated at the centre of Christianity.

From St Peter’s Basilica, Pell went to another grand institution – Oxford – to study for his doctorate in church history. He next briefly served as an associate priest in Swan Hill in north-west Victoria, before returning to Ballarat, a place that was then a thick nest of conspiring sexual predators. Pell had gone from Latinate lectures and the lush lawns of Oxford to a site he would describe this week as “one of the very worst places in Australia” for clergy abuse. On Wednesday, regarding the broader Victorian church in that time, Pell said it “was an extraordinary world, a world of crimes and cover-ups”.

It was. There was a staggering cluster of paedophiles and child rapists in the Ballarat Catholic churches, a fact that Pell described as an unfortunate “coincidence” rather than a resonance, as his earlier statement of “cover-ups” might attest.

It was in such a world that Pell made his triumphant homecoming. The squalor, he tells us, was completely unknown to him at the time. From St Peter’s and Oxford’s theology faculty, here he was embroiled in something closer to the Mafia.

Much of Monday and Tuesday were given to questioning Pell about his time in Ballarat, where he served the church in varying capacities, most crucially as an adviser – or “consultor” – to his bishop, Ronald Mulkearns. Counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness, SC, outlined the pertinent biography: “For part of the time [Cardinal Pell] was a priest in Ballarat, he was also one of the consultors to Bishop Mulkearns. In that role he had responsibilities, together with the other consultors, to give advice to the bishop on various matters, including the appointment of priests to particular parishes. Cardinal Pell was a consultor at a time when some of the priests who had offended against children were serving in the diocese.”

The most grievous offender was Gerald Ridsdale, a man now in protective custody in Ararat prison after pleading guilty to more than 50 charges of sexual assault. Ridsdale was shifted repeatedly – and peculiarly, to anyone paying attention – between parishes in the 1970s and ’80s. As consultor to Bishop Mulkearns, Pell attended meetings in which the decisions to move Ridsdale were made. He told the commission repeatedly this week that while Ridsdale’s offending was known to many priests – it was “pretty common knowledge”, according to a police officer – it was never revealed to him. Pell was suggesting that he was mysteriously cocooned from this information. Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan and Furness were curious about why. First, Pell offered his most infamous line from this week, a line that elicited appalled gasps from the public gallery in Sydney. “It’s a sad story,” said Pell, of Ridsdale’s offending, “and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”

Furness was surprised herself. “It wasn’t of much interest to you, Cardinal?”

“The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret that,” Pell said, “but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated.”

It struck almost everyone as a confession of bizarre neglect, and the line featured on the front page of most Australian newspapers the following day. But when a barrister put the line to Pell just two days later, on Thursday, Pell had forgotten he’d said it. “I can read to you from the transcript if you like,” the barrister responded calmly.

Back on Tuesday, following the admission of lack of interest, Justice McClellan and Furness pushed Pell on how he managed to elude knowledge of Ridsdale’s offending. Pell suggested a conspiracy of deception against him. Furness asked: “Each of the other members of the consultors, with the exception of you and Arundell, had knowledge of sexual assault allegations against at least one priest – that is, Day – or one and two priests – that is, Day and Ridsdale? Is that right?”

“That is correct,” Pell replied.

“And you say that none of those people shared with you any knowledge they had about Ridsdale?”

“That is correct. And these matters were not discussed at the consultors meetings and I think that is very close to the unanimous evidence of the consultors.”

Justice McClellan interjected. “Cardinal, as I understand your evidence, the consequence is you say the bishop deceived you – is that right?”

“Unfortunately, correct,” Pell replied.

“It is surprising, isn’t it,” McClellan proposed, “that a bishop and a senior cleric, who joined with you in a committee to advise in relation to appointments, would deceive a member of that committee?”

“It is. It is surprising.”

McClellan thought that it was closer to implausible. Moments later, he resumed his questioning of Pell and asked him why Bishop Mulkearns had so “grossly” deceived him. Pell responded that perhaps his bishop feared Pell as a speaker of truth. “Regrettably, Cardinal, I don’t understand your answer,” McClellan said. “I don’t understand your explanation as to why the bishop would choose to deceive you or, indeed, lie to you, a member of his consultors, about Ridsdale’s behaviour when it was common knowledge in at least two of the parishes. Given that it was common knowledge amongst many people, why would he choose to deceive you?”

Again Pell responded – as he had elsewhere in these proceedings – that the rotten clergy knew Pell wasn’t “cut from the same cloth”. They had decided to insulate the one man they feared might be brave enough to speak out. This was one of a few defences Pell offered this week. Not only is this defence undermined by his earlier admission of indifference – and the fact that the information was common knowledge anyway – its back is broken by a disturbing disclosure made on the final morning of examination. Again, it relates to Pell’s time in Ballarat.

Pell said that a 14-year-old boy had come to him to complain of boys being sexually abused by Edward Dowlan – another serial offender. Pell admitted that he did very little in response to it. The exchange is extraordinary, and deserves to be quoted at length.

“He just mentioned it casually in conversation, he never asked me to do anything,” Pell said of the boy.

“You didn’t go straight to the school and say, ‘I’ve got this allegation, what’s going on?’ ” the victim’s lawyer asked.

“No, I didn’t,” Pell responded. “People had a different attitude then. There was no specifics about the activity, how serious it was, and the boy wasn’t asking me to do anything about it but just lamenting and mentioning it.”

At this point, an exasperated Justice McClellan interjected. “You and I have had this discussion on more than one occasion. Why was it necessary for people to ask you to do something rather than for you to accept the information and initiate your own response?”

For a man heroically unaccepting of the “status quo”, Pell had shown enormous timidity.

3 . Allegations against Pell

The prelude to this week’s hearings was controversial. First, there was Pell’s request to provide his testimony remotely from Rome because of a heart condition that precluded travel. The request was reluctantly granted by the commission. Church abuse victims were annoyed, but a public fundraising campaign swiftly raised the monies to fly to Rome.

Then there was a spectacular leak from Victoria Police, which let slip the fact that police have been investigating allegations of sexual assault made against Cardinal Pell himself. Pell angrily denied the claims, saying they were “maliciously timed”. The leak has since been referred to Victoria’s anti-corruption body, but Pell demanded that a separate government inquiry also be held. The Victorian government rejected this, claiming it would be a duplication of the anti-corruption body’s investigation.

The allegations span from 1978 to 2001, from Pell’s time in Ballarat and Melbourne. They follow an allegation that Pell abused a choirboy in the 1960s – an allegation that went to an internal church inquiry in 2002, led by retired Justice Alec Southwell, which found it could not be established.

4 . Pell diminished

By day three, Pell seemed diminished. He’d lost his usual pugnacity. His reputation had taken a battering, and he had been subject to a marathon testimony that ran until 3am, a testing ordeal with or without a medical condition. The patient accretion of detail was arrayed before him skilfully, and the pile of evidence began to dwarf him.

But there remained a few of his signatures – his patricianly affect, his odd detachment, his numbing drone. Pell was never regarded for his charm – the value he had to the church was never his oratory – and he stammered irritably throughout. His testimony may have been soporific if it weren’t so frequently surprising. When Furness put to him an allegation that Father Peter Searson – a particularly deranged child abuser – had stabbed a bird to death with a screwdriver in front of children, Pell responded by saying that he wasn’t sure if the bird wasn’t already dead. “That hardly matters, does it?” Furness replied. Victims shook their heads.

Come Wednesday’s brief adjournment, I imagined Pell as a battered boxer retreating to his corner. Imagined his cut men smearing Vaseline upon his split brow, rubbing his shoulders, offering encouraging homilies. Imagined them squirting holy water into his gaping mouth; splashing it upon his flushed cheeks. There were times as if Furness was George Foreman, pounding a hapless Muhammad Ali on the ropes. Except this time, Ali had no guile. No plan. The ropes weren’t a strategic choice – it was involuntary.

Counsel had landed some serious hits. “Implausible” and “extraordinary” they called his evidence. But Pell’s greatest opponent was history, adroitly commanded as it was by Furness. Pell’s backers ebbed from him. He became more and more improbable. “I have,” he said at one point on Tuesday, “the support of the Pope.”

5 . Incompatible defences

In 1987, Pell became an auxiliary priest in Melbourne – the step before becoming the city’s archbishop in 1996. During that time, he served Archbishop Frank Little, a man described by a former colleague last year as having an “exaggerated respect” for the priesthood that resulted in him “shutting his eyes” to clergy abuse. Pell has also condemned Little’s handling of sexual abuse.

As Little’s auxiliary priest, it was one of Pell’s responsibilities to hear complaints. A storm of them were being generated in the Melbourne suburb of Doveton, where the notorious Father Searson worked. Searson’s behaviour was so consistently, ferociously bizarre and destructive that a writer is almost fireproofed from hyperbole. He was a dangerous predator and indiscreet lunatic. The lack of discretion is key here. Searson was a known thief and abuser who, in front of children, mutilated animals, flashed a gun, opened a coffin and threatened a girl with a knife. Victoria’s parliamentary inquiry into church abuse found that Searson had already acquired “a regrettable record of suspected sexual abuse of children and considerable financial misappropriations” even before moving to Doveton, a parish he served until his eventual suspension in 1997.

There was a mountain of suspicions, allegations and grievances regarding Searson – and a considerable body of witnesses. Colleagues of Searson’s at Doveton’s Holy Family School complained bitterly to Pell, who says that he took no action. This week, Furness directed Pell to a sheet of grievances about Searson given to him in 1989. They were provided to Pell as he was the region’s bishop. It was an appalling litany, but despite receiving this list and meeting with its authors, Pell said this week he was not fully “briefed” on Searson because of another gross act of deception, this time practised by the Catholic Education Office.

McClellan was piqued. “Can you give us any reason why the education office would choose to deceive you in relation to Searson’s behaviour?” the judge asked.

“Yes, I was a new boy on the block,” Pell responded. “I was known to be capable of being outspoken. They might have been fearful of just what line I would take when confronted with all the information.”

“Does it strike you as extraordinary that the education office would choose to deceive you about information that might be relevant to your assessment of that complaint?”

“Yes, it is,” Pell agreed.

Then it was Furness’s turn. Pell was arguing incomplete information, and an innocent belief that other people were conducting rigorous investigations. But Furness returned to Pell’s responsibilities.

“Did you form the view from the list of incidents and grievances,” Furness asked, “that there should be action taken against Father Searson, regardless of your advice from the Catholic Education Office?”

“I accepted the advice of the Catholic Education Office,” Pell replied.

“Your job as auxiliary bishop was for you to apply your mind and experience to matters that came to you in the role as auxiliary bishop – isn’t that right?” Furness asked.

“That is correct.”

“So what did you do to apply your mind to the list of grievances that was provided to you to consider for yourself, as auxiliary bishop, what could and should be done in relation to Father Searson?”

“I went and sought advice from the executive arms that were regularly used, and I thought that was adequate.”

“What do you say about the adequacy of it now, Cardinal?”

“No, it was plainly inadequate.”

This was in 1989. Searson would not be suspended for almost another decade.

Pell used multiple defences. There was the appeal to noble iconoclasm, which does not seem to be borne out by the evidence. There was the historical appeal – his argument that the times then were fundamentally different, soaked in complacency about child sexual abuse. An outgrowth of this, Pell admitted, was the church’s “disposition” to disbelieve children. When asked if he was aware of a spate of false allegations made by children, Pell said he was not. Asked if he could recall one such example, Pell could not.

Finally, there was Pell’s recurring defence – incompatible with the first – based upon his apparently virtuous indifference to gossip. Expanding upon this, Pell said: “We work within a framework of Christian moral teaching, or certainly we should, and discussion of the secret faults of others is not encouraged.” It is difficult to be sure where the putative truth-teller of his other defence finds room within the “moral framework” of this one.

The result of all this is that we are asked to reconcile Pell’s great ambition with his unique nobility, and wonder how a man so aggressively pure rose so quickly and so far among, as he calls it, a “world of crime and cover-ups”.

In the past, facing the commission or the press, Pell has radiated a calm sense of his own rectitude, mixed with what one observer described as an “imperious smugness”. A sense of an inviolable communion with higher authorities and venerable institutions – St Peter’s and Oxford. But this week, Pell’s reputation was badly injured. There was parsing, hedging, amnesia and startling admissions of moral stasis. If anyone had any doubt, Pell ascended in a world that was startlingly bankrupt.

Justice McClellan and Counsel Furness were periodically irritated or incredulous. How that irritation and incredulity manifests, we’ll have to wait and see – the commission’s report is not released until December next year. But given this week’s proceedings, one might make an educated guess as to what it will contain.


Royal commission: 1800 099 340

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2016 as "It’s a sad story... of much interest to you".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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