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As the preliminary hearing continues into allegations against George Pell of historical sexual offences, the tone of the cardinal’s possible defence is becoming clear. By Alex McKinnon.

The George Pell committal hearing

Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / LUIS ASCUI

The committal hearing to determine whether Cardinal George Pell will stand trial for historical sex offences involving multiple complainants has happened mostly behind closed doors. No details of the hearing appear on the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court daily case list.

Still, the hearing has given the public the first glimpse of the charges Pell is defending. One complainant accused Pell of abusing them in 1978, during a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a country movie theatre. Another alleged Pell abused them at a country swimming pool, again in the 1970s.

From the hearing’s first day, Pell’s defence has adopted a pugilistic strategy. Robert Richter, QC, Pell’s lead defence barrister, responded derisively to a witness’s request to have a support dog present while they gave evidence, saying, “I always thought dogs were there for children and very old people.” Magistrate Belinda Wallington informed him that “they’re also for vulnerable people”. The dog was allowed.

Richter and his junior barristers have not hesitated to question the character and motives of Pell’s alleged victims. Several times, Wallington has felt compelled to intervene. In one heated exchange with a witness, Richter called the man’s relationship with his abused son into doubt, putting it to him that they were not close.

The man responded angrily, saying, “I really think that’s totally disrespectful to say that to a father.” Richter also accused the man of fabricating Pell’s involvement in his son’s abuse since making a police statement in 2015, asking, “You’ve just made that up after you’ve made your statement, right?” The father rejected Richter’s assertion, calling it an “insult”.

Nor have they been shy about their intent to grill victims about upsetting, potentially traumatic experiences, if doing so will help Pell’s case. Early in proceedings, Wallington blunted Richter’s attempts to question witnesses about the details of alleged offences not involving Pell, partly out of concern for victims being forced to relive their ordeals. She said the court had “no intention to trawl through detail of abuse at the hands of other clergy”, restricting defence’s questioning to the timing of the complaints.

Besides the usual attempts to poke holes in witness testimony, one line of the defence’s questioning revealed a key argument they will use to discredit witnesses if the case goes to trial. Richter has painted a picture of Pell as a man scapegoated by lawyers greedy for notoriety and overzealous victims’ advocates eager to see a cardinal take the fall as payback for the church’s history of abetting child sex abuse.

The inference was there when defence barrister Ruth Shann accused Simon Acott, a legal assistant at Waller Legal, of raising Pell’s name while a complainant was reporting an alleged instance of sexual assault by another priest. Acott’s superior, Vivian Waller, who has represented abuse victims for decades, has had run-ins with Pell in the past. In 2013, Waller told the Victorian inquiry into clergy sexual abuse that Pell was present when a child reported being raped by a priest. Pell’s media director, Katrina Lee, called the claim “seriously defamatory”. She has been at Pell’s side throughout the hearing.

Shann drew on this history while grilling Acott, speaking of Waller’s “public stoushes” with Pell and asking if she had “expressed enthusiasm” about referring the Pell allegations to police. Acott denied Shann’s charge of putting Pell’s name in a victim’s head, saying the name “wasn’t asked for, it was volunteered”. He asserted the alleged victim said, “I was at the pool and I was abused by Pell”, telling him “lots of stuff came back to me when I saw the TV special on George Pell”.

Richter ran a similar line against Bernard Barrett, the former Victorian state historian who has spent years volunteering for sexual abuse victim advocacy group Broken Rites. Richter told the court Barrett suggested Pell’s involvement to another alleged victim. “We are suggesting he provided the name ‘Pell’,” he said. Richter asked Barrett if he had been trying “to big-note yourself with police” by offering to contact a sexual violence taskforce on behalf of a victim. Richter suggested to Barrett that it could have been seen as “a considerable victory” to “pin something on Cardinal Pell”.

Richter has also rounded up plenty of witnesses to support his defence. A former Ballarat schoolboy told the court he never heard of Pell doing anything “untoward”. The same witness said he “personally” found nothing inappropriate about a game Pell often used to play with children at the pool, cupping his hands under the water and launching them into the air.

Seeking to discredit an allegation that Pell “walked into the sacristy and did something to those boys” at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s, where he was archbishop, Richter turned to the building’s layout. Maxwell Potter, a sacristan, said the allegation could not be true as choirboys did not have access to the room, which was often locked.

Charles Portelli, a priest at St Patrick’s at the time Pell was archbishop there, agreed with Richter’s assertion that “there was never an opportunity for the archbishop to be alone in the priest’s sacristy”. Portelli said he always assisted Pell while robing and disrobing in preparation for Sunday services. ‘‘It was impossible for him to be alone on a Sunday mass, it was simply impossible,’’ Portelli said. ‘‘I was always standing near him.”

Portelli did concede, however, that while the archbishop could not have been alone with boys in the sacristy on a Sunday – a busy day for a major cathedral – St Patrick’s often held masses on other days that required the presence of the choir.

The scenarios of hypothetical child sexual assault Richter painted for his witnesses were livid and dramatic. Questioning John Bourke, a former cinema usher and projector operator in the country theatre, Richter asked if an usher would have investigated “if a child was heard to scream out on the balcony”, or if they found blood on the seats.

Two days before the hearing officially began, police withdrew one charge after the complainant died. Wallington abruptly adjourned the hearing for several days on March 14 after learning of the “devastating” sudden death of magistrate Stephen Myall, a close friend.

On March 20, the hearing was blindsided by news that a witness due to be cross-examined had given a new statement to police the night before, apparently containing new allegations against Pell. Richter successfully removed the witness’s first statement from the prosecution’s brief of evidence, saying the “troubling” second statement left defence with no time to prepare. If the witness’s latest allegation results in additional charges against Pell, it will likely be examined in a separate hearing.

But the main event still has some way to run. This week, Richter will cross-examine ABC journalist Louise Milligan. Besides producing the 7.30 special report revealing many of the accusations against Pell for the first time in July 2016, Milligan is the author of Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, in which she tells the stories of Pell’s alleged victims in exhaustive detail. Milligan’s 7.30 report has been deleted from ABC websites, and Cardinal was pulled from the shelves of Victorian bookstores before the hearing began.

Ahead of the clash, Pell’s team and the ABC have cautiously swapped notes. While the ABC has handed over transcripts, footage and notes from Milligan’s coverage of the story, Milligan’s lawyers have refused to hand over material that could identify confidential sources, citing journalistic privilege. In return, they have received secret details of the charges against Pell, including further details of the alleged offences. How much of that information will be made public remains to be seen.

The hearing continues.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "Within hearing". Subscribe here.

Alex McKinnon
is Schwartz Media’s morning editor, and a former editor of Junkee.

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