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As Cardinal George Pell faces the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on historic sexual abuse charges, he confronts a system unmoved by his status. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

In court with Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court under police guard on Wednesday.
Credit: DARRIAN TRAYNOR / GETTY IMAGES

To those already inside, George Pell appeared suddenly. Dressed in familiar black, with clerical collar, he came through the front door like everyone else. The highest-ranked Catholic to appear before a court on sex offences, it was, the court had been telling media all week, business as usual.

A large, elderly man, Pell moved slowly through the screening arch, expressionless, before a security guard traced his body with a hand-held metal detector. The screening complete, Pell collected his black coat from the end of the conveyor belt. Aide to the Pope, treasurer of the Vatican, confidant of prime ministers. But in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday morning, procedurally at least, he was just another man accused of a terrible crime. Beside the screening point, the court cafe’s espresso machine was hissing industriously. “It’s reassuring to see this,” a man beside me said. “That no matter how powerful you are, you are subject to the same processes as everyone else.”

Pell looked poorly. Hunched and shockingly pale. As he walked past the queue stretching before the doors of Courtroom 2, a ripple of applause emerged from a handful of supporters. Pell, head slightly bowed, made no eye contact, but seemed to faintly acknowledge the encouragement. One of the dozen police officers who followed him, however, vigilant to any sudden noises that might precede mischief or violence, looked up sharply. There was no threat. Then Pell was gone, presumably to a conference room, quickly followed by his legal team.

The espresso machine hissed on. The X-ray kept scanning. Protective Service Officers stood guard. Court staff consulted with each other, or shuttled between offices. I heard those waiting to enter the courtroom discuss a recent podcast about the unsolved murder of Melbourne woman Maria James, and the alleged involvement of the late priest Father Anthony Bongiorno. One woman half-jokingly asked a man, “Friend or foe?” as she sat down beside him in the lobby. A man expressed dismay that, in schools, “the line has shifted the other way now – you can’t show compassion as you used to; can’t give a kid a hug”. A staff member walked upstairs with a confiscated painting of the Virgin Mary, to remove the possibility of its owner displaying it in court. Meanwhile, the queue grew longer for a courtroom that couldn’t possibly accommodate it.

 

Most had arrived early. Many before sunrise. Church abuse victims, Catholic supporters. You could see the colours of survivor groups – the blue of heaven, the yellow of light and spiritual renewal – on scarves and beanies. Then there was the media: television crews, photographers, print and radio journalists. Broadcast satellite vans lined William Street. The footpath was choked. International media arrived; CNN was rumoured to have been the first, staking their place before dawn. The BBC, The New York Times and Al Jazeera assigned journalists. With little to report, we reported each other. In the days before, the Director of Public Prosecutions had sent a letter reminding media that “coverage in respect of these proceedings must be fair so that the interests of justice are preserved”.

He wrote: “I note that since the charges were filed, there has been some reporting about this matter that includes commentary or opinion or discussion about the guilt or innocence of the accused person. I remind all outlets that publication of speculation and opinions about guilt or innocence, or the ability of the accused to receive a fair trial, or any commentary that has a tendency to interfere with the course of justice will also offend the sub judice principle.”

The court opened to the public at 8.30am. Pell’s filing hearing was scheduled for 10 o’clock, and was expected to last no more than five minutes. It lasted six. Before the hearing, it felt like we were waiting for an eclipse – great anticipation of something we knew would be fleeting. A masked protester stood silently, holding a placard.

As I waited on the entrance ramp with everyone else, police wheeled three baskets of court documents past us. Standing in front of me was a middle-aged man in a blue sweatshirt and Akubra hat.

“I’ve come up from Geelong this morning for this,” he told me.

“Are you a Grammar boy?” I asked.

“No, I was in state care as a kid.”

The man was Duncan Storrar, who found sudden, crippling national attention last year after asking, as a member of the Q&A audience, assistant treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer about the budget. “If you lift my tax-free threshold, that changes my life,” he said. “That means I get to say to my little girls, ‘Daddy’s not broke this weekend, we can go to the pictures.’ Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift. Why don’t I get it? Why do they get it?”

Instantaneously celebrated on social media, Storrar quickly became a beleaguered proxy in our culture wars when, during the next few days, reporters delved into his past and referred to him as a “thug” and “villain”. His estranged son published a piece condemning him in The Australian. Storrar effectively went into hiding. “It was very hard,” he tells me. “But it’s given me an opportunity. I have a voice. I’m invited to speak at ACOSS [the Australian Council of Social Service].”

We shuffled closer to the entrance. He is here, he says, because he was sexually abused while a ward of the state.

 

The hearing began at 10am precisely. Magistrate Duncan Reynolds presided. Journalists stood at the back; sketch artists occupied the witness stand. Sitting not far behind Pell was Chrissie Foster who, with her late husband Anthony, has long been an advocate for church abuse victims. It was to Pell that they took the abuse of their daughters and sought compensation. Anthony Foster died in May after a fall.

The hearing, the chief purpose of which is to establish a date for a committal hearing, would have been even shorter had the considerable public interest not prompted additional remarks from counsel. Prosecutor Andrew Tinney, SC, reiterated the Director of Public Prosecution’s letter regarding media responsibility. Robert Richter, QC, who appeared for Pell, confirmed that his client would, when and if the matter was committed for trial, plead not guilty to all charges.

Pell has consistently and strongly denied all accusations, but did not speak during Wednesday’s hearing. Regarding those charges, a suppression order remains in place. They were described on Wednesday simply as “multiple historic sexual offence charges with respect to multiple complainants”.

The committal mention was set for October 6. It will be just another step in a legal process that could last years.

 

Business as usual, the court said, and it was. The Magistrates’ Court of Victoria is the state’s busiest, processing a quarter million criminal and civil cases a year in more than 50 locations. On the day that one of the Catholic Church’s most significant figures passed through its Melbourne court, the six-level building resembled, as it usually did, a regional airport terminal. In waiting areas, lawyers and clients consulted. Kids ran around. On the ground floor, the ceaseless passage of people entering and exiting the court continued. The metal detector kept beeping.

In court, the queues were orderly, the screening efficient, the hearing on time and unmarred by protest. Before and after the hearing, police effectively secured Pell.

Certainly, the scenes of Pell returning to Richter’s office were startling. The pack of journalists – largely TV crews and photographers – seethed around the ring of police protecting Pell. Police yelled orders to stay back. An elderly lady with white hair kept a safe distance while repeating, in a delicate voice that had no chance of reaching Pell’s ears, “Shame.” Staff of the cafe, around which this livid mass had suddenly appeared, looked bewildered. And then he was gone.

I spoke briefly with Chrissie Foster after the hearing. She appeared, understandably, exhausted. Her eyes were glazed with tears. “I’ve been waiting a while for this,” she said. Elsewhere, an elderly couple held a cardboard sign offering their support for the cardinal. TV journalists began their pieces to camera. Abuse victims left for nearby cafes to debrief. It was the end of the beginning.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 29, 2017 as "In court with Cardinal Pell". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.