Cardinal George Pell died this week in Rome having been acquitted by the High Court on child sexual abuse charges but without ever facing court over multiple other allegations. By Louise Milligan.
The child abuse cases for which George Pell was never tried
The first time I met George Pell, I was a cadet journalist and he was the archbishop of Melbourne. He was dazzling.
Even then, Pell had a slightly terrifying reputation. He was loudly opposed to giving communion to gay Catholics and to women in the clergy, and would later declare that abortion was a worse moral crime than paedophilia.
His Catholicism was muscular and pugilistic. The motto he chose for his coat of arms was “Be not afraid”.
As I saw him leaving The Herald and Weekly Times building, I plucked up some courage and introduced myself. What happened next surprised me: Pell was utterly, utterly charming. He beamed a thousand-watt smile. His eyes softened. He conversed with me for a few minutes. He seemed charismatic, but also, to my surprise, kind.
That morning I got a glimpse of a man who would seduce prime ministers and newspaper editors, who would bedazzle not just parishes but dioceses, not just cardinals but popes. The sort of man who, when his death was announced on Wednesday, Tony Abbott would describe as a “saint for our times”.
I could almost feel the punch in the guts that statement must have been for survivors of clergy abuse across Australia – most particularly those whose abusers George Pell knew about and did nothing to stop.
It would have been a punch in the guts, too, for the group of men who made direct accusations of sexual crimes against Pell, men I met for my investigation into him for the ABC and for my book Cardinal.
For many good people in the church, for many survivors racked with post-traumatic stress disorder, the circus that has surrounded his death has evoked that familiar tightness in the chest, that familiar, crushing anxiety.
The second time I met George Pell was in Rome in 2006 for the cross handover ceremony for Catholic World Youth Day.
I was by then a commercial television reporter and the stories we filed were very straight and positive – lots of shots of crowds cheering in St Peter’s Square, lots of high energy and political enthusiasm for the event.
Pell was there as the archbishop of Sydney. In his fleeting encounters with the travelling press, he was surly and officious. He looked down at us with mild disdain, like we were an annoyance, a distraction.
It didn’t occur to me then but by the time of that second meeting everything had changed for Pell – or at least, had begun to change. Four years earlier he had faced his first public allegations of child sexual abuse.
That accusation dated to the 1960s, when Pell was a seminarian nicknamed “Big George”.
The accuser, who had been an altar boy at the time, said Pell had touched him under the water at Smiths Beach in Victoria. This was to become a theme in the accusations against George Pell. Beaches and swimming pools and lakes and water. The Eureka pool in Ballarat. Lake Boga. A Ballarat orphanage shower. Torquay Surf Life Saving Club.
The man who said Pell abused him at Smiths Beach did not want to go to the police. Instead, he sought an internal church investigation.
A retired Supreme Court judge, Alec Southwell, was appointed. He found both Pell and his accuser believable, saying the man “gave the impression that he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection”.
But Southwell also found the evidence was not sufficient to find to the requisite standard that Pell had committed the crime. Many criminal lawyers who read the report have reflected to me that it was not, as Pell would go on to describe it, a complete exoneration.
The Catholic Church released the Southwell Report on the Monday after the Sari nightclub and Paddy’s Bar exploded in the 2002 Bali bombings. What had been a big story about George Pell quickly faded.
The cardinal was supported by then prime minister John Howard, who had pre-empted the findings of the inquiry by saying he believed “completely” George Pell’s denial.
While the accusations against Pell faded from the national consciousness for more than 13 years, the case against the church’s mishandling of child sexual abuse began to gather steam.
Pressure was placed on politicians and the church itself by the work of dogged investigative journalists and the voice of police who spoke out.
This led to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry in which the late Anthony Foster, father of two daughters abused by a paedophile priest, described George Pell as having a “sociopathic lack of empathy” when the family went to see him about their daughters’ plight.
Soon after, then prime minister Julia Gillard called the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – a five-year inquiry that found the Catholic Church was significantly overrepresented as an institution in complaints of sexual abuse.
The royal commission did not pull its punches in its handling of the officious cardinal who, describing the abuse in the town of Inglewood in the Ballarat diocese, famously said it was a sad story that wasn’t of much interest to him.
The commission would later find that Pell knew about paedophile priests, including one of Australia’s most prolific sex offenders, Gerald Ridsdale, who was bounced from parish to parish by Ronald Mulkearns, the then bishop of Ballarat, to abuse ever more children.
Pell was one of the consultors to the bishop when he was making these decisions to move Ridsdale.
The royal commission found that Pell knew as early as 1973, rejecting Pell’s evidence, saying it was “inconceivable” he didn’t know, and saying that the conduct of the consultors in effectively turning a blind eye was “unacceptable”. The report is a masterclass in restraint.
The commission also found that Pell had some knowledge or ought to have known about Brother Edward Dowlan and Father Peter Searson and Father Nazareno Fasciale. Pell attended Fasciale’s requiem mass when Fasciale died several weeks after being charged by Victoria Police.
The commission was satisfied that members of the Melbourne archdiocese’s personnel advisory board, which included George Pell, were told about Fasciale’s abuse of children.
“It was inconceivable that the true circumstances of Father Fasciale’s resignation were not discussed, when so many senior priests were present with knowledge of complaints against him,” the commissioners found, saying they were “satisfied” it was discussed.
“Allowing Father Fasciale to resign ostensibly on health grounds was wrong. It had the effect of concealing the true reasons for his resignation from the public.”
Pell infamously did not return to Australia to give his final evidence to the royal commission. He required, instead, that commission representatives fly to him and set up a video link.
The same Vatican cardiologist who gave evidence of the medical miracle that led to the canonisation of John Paul II said Pell had a heart condition that made it impossible for him to fly.
This condition did not stop Pell from flying for years after the royal commission. In fact, the night before my book on Pell was published, a friend of mine snapped him at Heathrow Airport.
It would later transpire that, in December 2015, eight days before Pell’s lawyers had informed the commission he was unable to travel to Australia, Victoria Police Taskforce Sano detectives had raided St Patrick’s Cathedral, St Kevin’s College and other properties linked to the church.
The detectives were looking for evidence of another allegation involving Pell – that he had orally raped two choirboys in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral while Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s.
One of those boys became a serious and thoughtful man who would be known in court proceedings only as “Witness J”.
The other died in 2014 at the age of 30 of a drug overdose. Having been a cherubic and happy-go-lucky choirboy, a year after the alleged abuse took place he became addicted to heroin.
His parents were so perplexed they took him to the Royal Children’s Hospital to have him psychologically assessed. The boy, like so many others, never told.
The other boy might not have either, except he was so profoundly affected by his friend’s death that he decided to go to the police.
Years later, this testimony led to a conviction by a jury, which was also upheld by the Victorian Court of Appeal. The High Court later acquitted Pell.
In 2015, unknown to Witness J, other men were making complaints to police against Pell. Those men’s allegations never got to trial.
I interviewed two of the men in 2016 for ABC TV’s 7.30. Both said Pell had abused them at the Eureka pool in the 1970s.
They were the first and only complainants against George Pell to give interviews about what they say the cardinal did. Both were, by the time of their interviews, profoundly broken men.
The first man had made allegations not just about Pell but also about a teacher at his notorious school, St Alipius.
He had multiple friends who had lost their lives after abuse by clergy at St Alipius. His brother and wife, both victims of childhood sexual abuse, had also suicided.
In a life trajectory completely consistent with expert evidence tendered to the royal commission about survivors of child trauma, he turned to substance abuse and spent time in jail.
He told me he just wanted to go to court and look George Pell in the eye because he knew what he had done.
The second man was a very troubled soul who was, at the time, slowly drinking himself to death. He died a few weeks before Pell’s committal proceeding began in Melbourne.
Another man, “Bernie”, said he was abused by Pell in the shower of a Ballarat orphanage. He dropped out of the committal proceeding because, he later told the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson, he was racked with anxiety.
“Who’s going to believe a little boy from a home against that conglomerate?” Bernie asked. “You know? Against that bloody goliath? I’m due to get grilled, like I’m the fucking villain. I’m not the villain, mate.”
Two further men, including a man I had spoken to for Cardinal, did not make it through to trial.
Still, the magistrate, Belinda Wallington, committed Pell to trial on the “water” allegations at the Eureka pool.
The water complainants were due to go to trial after the “cathedral” case concerning the allegations of Witness J.
The Crown had wanted to run the case using what’s known in the law as “tendency and coincidence evidence” – using the complaints of the man I had spoken to and a second man at the Eureka pool, and tendering supportive evidence of a third man’s complaints in relation to alleged abuse by Pell at Lake Boga in northern Victoria.
Tendency evidence means, essentially, the court has assessed that the evidence of separate allegations, when taken together, has “significant probative value” – that the accused had a tendency to act in a particular way.
It’s a complicated area of the law.
The Crown’s case in the “water” trial was to show, according to Chief Judge Peter Kidd, “a tendency on the part of [Pell] to use the opportunity presented by playing games in the water to intentionally indecently touch boys on their groin, genitals or bottoms”.
Kidd assessed that the allegations of the two other complainants were not as serious, calculated or as persistent as those of the man whom I had interviewed.
There was a real risk, the judge assessed, that the jury might assess one man’s complaint as stronger than it was because of the strength of the other complaint.
Therefore, he reasoned, the cases could not be heard together.
Victoria Police drove to Ballarat to inform the man I had interviewed that, because the trials could not be heard together, the Crown had made the decision not to go alone. His case would not proceed.
In the Crown’s thinking was the fact that they had secured a conviction in the choirboy case. Pell was in jail. Also considered was the vulnerability of the man and the attacks on his credibility that would inevitably be made because his life had unravelled.
Having been cross-examined for a full day by Pell’s barrister in the committal proceeding, because I was a witness in the case, I can see what they were thinking.
Despite my many privileges as a journalist with a law degree, who wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder occasioned by abuse, I came away from that process utterly traumatised.
It led me to write my second book, Witness, because I felt that reform was desperately required into how complainants of sexual crimes are treated in criminal trials.
The Pell complainant told me he would never advise a victim of a sexual crime to come forward to police. He had barely left the house since being informed his case against Pell was not going ahead. As I wrote in Witness, he wanted to expose the “terrible” way complainants were treated by the system.
“My life is fucking ruined, Louise,” he told me. “I am not the same.”
He was one of the first people I thought of when news of Pell’s death broke. I haven’t spoken to him for a while. I really, really hope he is okay.
As well as him, I thought of all those hundreds of broken, red-eyed men, who looked older than their years, who queued up at my book events over the years since Cardinal was published and clasped my hand and were often unable to speak.
They were once little boys who ran around playgrounds like Ballarat’s St Alipius, the wind in their faces.
This week, as others canonise George Pell, I remember them.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 14, 2023 as "The child abuse cases for which George Pell was never tried".
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