The lifelong damage George Pell caused to his victims is now well known. In the wake of the cardinal’s conviction, his work and his prominent supporters are cast in a new and horrific light. By Alex McKinnon.

George Pell’s conviction

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Credit: AP Photo / Andy Brownbill

For nearly 20 years, the Australian Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse was shaped by a child molester.

Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on sexual assault charges this week has so many ramifications, of such importance, it is difficult to know where to look first.

Much has already been made of the implications of Pell’s conviction for ordinary Australian Catholics, and for the church they attend. His public disgrace will have an enormous impact on the tenure of Pope Francis, who placed Pell in charge of the Vatican’s finances and has struggled to respond to sexual abuse within the church.

When Pell was merely Australia’s most senior Catholic, his efforts to protect the church from survivors of clergy abuse were legendary. His conviction casts those efforts in a new and horrific light: he was not simply callous, he was complicit. Pell built entire legal architectures, placed innumerable obstacles in the way of survivors and their loved ones, spent decades and millions of dollars, not only to protect the church but to protect himself.

As archbishop of Melbourne in October 1996 – two months before he molested two teenage choirboys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral – Pell established the Melbourne Response. Ostensibly a mechanism for survivors of abuse to seek apology and redress, the Melbourne Response was brought in less than a month before the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference approved the Towards Healing protocol. The co-existence of the two systems denied abuse survivors in the Archdiocese of Melbourne the same opportunities for justice as those in the rest of the country.

Towards Healing does not cap payments to victims. The Melbourne Response did, and does – first at $50,000, now at $75,000. Between 1996 and 2014, survivors who went through the Melbourne Response received an average payout of $32,000. In 2015, internal church documents revealed the response had saved the church as much as $62 million in payments to survivors, counselling costs, medical expenses and legal fees.

Three months after molesting the boys, Pell met with Chrissie and Anthony Foster. Their two daughters, Emma and Katie, were sexually abused by Father Kevin O’Donnell, their parish priest. When the Fosters expressed their concern to Pell that the Melbourne Response was inadequate for the pain their daughters had suffered, he told them, “If you don’t like what we’re doing, we’ll see you in court.” At a larger group meeting with survivors later that day, Pell said, “It’s all gossip until it’s proven in court, and I don’t listen to gossip.”

In 2014, Pell told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse he set up the Melbourne Response “to make it easier for victims to achieve justice, and to seek financial compensation and counselling, without needing to establish legal liability”.

Dr Judy Courtin, a lawyer and advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, says besides the implications Pell’s conviction has on “anything he’s ever said and done”, the harm Pell has caused through the Melbourne Response deserves to be re-emphasised.

“That whole process was designed to contain and control and further silence victims. And that’s exactly what it did,” Courtin told The Saturday Paper. “They just continue to battle victims. They use the black letter of the law to the nth degree, and they continue to re-traumatise people. It’s just disgusting.”

Courtin was in the public gallery at the Melbourne Court of Appeal on Wednesday when Pell’s legal team withdrew his application for bail and he was taken into custody.

“You’re a maggot, Pell,” one man had shouted as the cardinal arrived that morning under heavy police escort. “A maggot. May you rot in hell, you freak. You’re filth.”

“Go to jail, you bastard,” said another. “Go to hell.”

As he left the building after the hearing, Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter, QC, was pursued by a media scrum and survivor advocates holding signs. Asked if he thought Pell would cope in jail, he replied, “I hope so.”

Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli told ABC Radio Melbourne on Wednesday that Pell’s Melbourne Response would not be dismantled immediately but would be reviewed “in due course”. News of Pell’s conviction had compelled more survivors to come forward and lodge claims. Speaking to the ABC’s 7.30 after the verdict was handed down, Chrissie Foster said “everything he has put in place on this issue should be torn down”.

Besides Pell’s seeming indifference towards survivors of sexual abuse – what Chrissie Foster called his “sociopathic lack of empathy” – his use of expensive and aggressive litigation to grind victims into silence has taken on a new dimension in the wake of his conviction. In 2007, the New South Wales Court of Appeal ruled the Catholic Church in Australia could not be sued, as it did not technically exist as a legal entity. The ruling was handed down in a civil case between Cardinal George Pell and former altar boy John Ellis, who was raped and abused as a child by Father Aidan Duggan. Ellis was dissatisfied with how Pell had handled his claim for compensation under the Towards Healing protocol.

Pell agreed with advice from his law firm, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, to “vigorously defend” Ellis’s claim – including by disputing whether Ellis had been abused at all – as doing so would “encourage people not to go into litigation”. He rejected an offer from Ellis’s lawyers to settle for $750,000, plus costs, because “I felt it was just too high”. Pell’s lawyers dragged out Ellis’s case for three years.

For the next 11 years, the church would successfully invoke the “Ellis defence” whenever a survivor of sexual abuse pursued redress through the civil courts. From the 1980s to February 2014, the Sydney Archdiocese paid just $4.6 million in compensation to survivors. In 2014, the archdiocese told the royal commission it held more than $1 billion in wealth and assets – a figure the commission noted “must understate the archdiocese’s net asset position”.

Pell told the commission in 2014 that the church’s immunity from lawsuits was “one of the few consolations, if that's what I've got, from this sorry mess”.

“Litigation can be an ugly business,” Pell said in a statement at the time.

The Ellis defence has now been retrospectively abolished in Victoria, allowing survivors to pursue the church in court, even if their previous claims were rejected. The father of the second boy Pell molested in the sacristy is considering suing Pell and the church over the death of his son from a heroin overdose in 2014.

The effacement has begun. A black line will be struck through Pell’s name on the honour board at St Patrick’s College in Ballarat, where he went to school. The wing named after him will be retitled. The Richmond Football Club, which signed him as a reserve-grade ruckman in 1959, has revoked his honorary vice-patronage. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has advised the governor-general to strip Pell of his Companion of the Order of Australia medal if his appeal is unsuccessful.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, where Pell served as archbishop for 13 years, will not remove the plaque honouring him outside St Mary’s Cathedral, however. For months, the plaque has been roped off and covered with a folded trestle table. Private security officers have been stationed by it to prevent vandalism. The archdiocese also has not announced any plans to repurpose the marble-and-terrazzo mausoleum prepared for Pell in St Mary’s underground crypt.

Pell was chairman of the international aid organisation Caritas Australia at the time of the abuse at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Responding to questions on whether this fact affected the charity’s work, especially in relation to children, a spokesman responded that “Caritas Australia has met its safeguarding and related risk obligations, including for child protection, in relation to overseas communities since the 1990s.”

It remains to be seen how Pell’s conviction will affect the reputations of his most ardent supporters, especially those who have doubled down since the verdict was made public. Many of them seem not to understand the enormity of what has happened.

Prominent Jesuit priest Father Frank Brennan said on Wednesday that while he had not heard the testimony of Pell’s surviving victim, that victim “got all sorts of facts wrong”, especially on the finer points of ecclesiastical dress and procedure. “The jury must have disregarded many of the criticisms so tellingly made by Richter of the complainant’s evidence,” Brennan said. His defence has been distributed to the families of Catholic schoolchildren.

Some of Pell’s defenders have responded as if his incarceration is just another culture-war squabble; something that can be won, or undone, by hitting familiar notes. Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven blamed Pell’s conviction on journalists at the former Fairfax newspapers and the ABC, accusing them and elements of Victoria Police of working “to blacken the name of someone before he went to trial”.

News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt wrote: “The man I know seems not just incapable of such abuse, but so intelligent and cautious that he would never risk his brilliant career and good name on such a mad assault in such a public place.”

And Bolt’s colleague Miranda Devine said this: “I don’t believe that Pell, who I know slightly and admire greatly, could be guilty of sexually assaulting two schoolboys. [Progressives] hate him because he is a conservative Catholic, the implacable enemy who stood in the way of ‘progress’ in the Church.”

Former prime minister Tony Abbott described the verdict as “a devastating result ... for the friends of Cardinal Pell” and “for all who believe in the Catholic Church”.

Craven and former prime minister John Howard provided character references at Pell’s pre-sentencing hearing on Wednesday. Howard praised him as “a lively conversationalist who maintains a deep and objective interest in contemporary social and political issues”.

“Cardinal Pell is a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character,” Howard said. “Strength and sincerity have always been features of his personality. I have always found him to be lacking hypocrisy and cant.”

In 2002, when Pell was accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy at a church camp on Phillip Island in the early 1960s, Howard called him to offer support.

“I believe completely George Pell’s denial,” Howard said at the time. “I would hardly have rung him to do otherwise.”

At a pre-sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Richter described Pell’s offending as “no more than a plain, vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”. He later apologised for the phrase. He claimed Pell was “seized by some irresistible impulse” when he forced a child’s mouth onto his exposed penis. He described Pell masturbating one of the boys, and himself, as “a fleeting touch”. Richter described Pell as a man with “a great deal of passion” and “a great sense of humour”.

When he cornered the boys in the sacristy, and began fumbling under his robes, Pell told them, “You’re in trouble.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 1, 2019 as "Pell knell".

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Alex McKinnon is Schwartz Media's morning editor.

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