News

As the Victorian Court of Appeal affirms the cardinal’s guilt, he retains dogged support from many in the conservative establishment. By Richard Cooke.

The power and hypocrisy of George Pell’s supporters

Cardinal George Pell is escorted in handcuffs from the Supreme Court of Victoria on Wednesday.
Credit: William West / AFP / Getty Images

In an age when even amateur broadcasters can attain professional production values, few telecasts still look as spartan as a real-life court proceeding. In prelude, the live feed from the Victorian Supreme Court presented only three empty seats, a state seal and a test soundtrack of tinkling piano music. As the judges filled those seats, the court website became inundated with viewers and crashed. Once restored, the video sometimes chopped or slowed under the weight of this absent audience. Chief Justice Anne Ferguson’s delivery of the summary was halting as well – The Saturday Paper’s legal correspondent, Richard Ackland, tweeted that she brought “all the drama of a dead wombat to reading a summary of one of the most important criminal judgments of the year” – but this dour diction was, in its way, more compelling than a mannered performance might have been. The ruling Ferguson delivered was brief, clear and surprising – George Pell’s appeal on child sexual assault charges had failed.

“It is fair to say that his case has divided the community,” said Ferguson, and so it divided the court. There were three grounds of appeal. One was that the defence had been unable to submit an animation, since nicknamed “the Pac-Man video”, purporting to show that the offending inside St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, was impossible. This was dismissed unanimously. So, too, was concern that Pell’s not guilty plea had been entered via video link only, and not in the presence of the jury. But on the most important question, of whether an “unsafe verdict” had been delivered, there was dissent. Justice Weinberg felt the evidence of the complainant, upon which the case hinged, was not satisfactory enough to preclude reasonable doubt. His colleagues disagreed. They found “A”, as he was called in the summary, was “not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of the truth”. It was reasonable for the jury to believe him.

The microphones recorded only silence from the gallery, and it was possible to forget the rest of those present: the press and lawyers, the survivors and supporters, and Cardinal Pell himself – he is not yet Mr Pell – who had arrived to court in a prison van, and would leave by the same means. Depending on their vantage point, court reporters said Pell “barely reacted” to the ruling, was “gripping the dock with his left hand and looking down at the floor”, looked “destroyed” or merely pursed his lips. Abuse survivors thanked the Lord for a decision many thought even more consequential than the cardinal’s earlier guilty verdict.

Media and legal circles had tipped a different result, partly because of matters of law, and partly because of a cruder calculus – that elite power is so seldom brought to lasting accountability. There might yet be another appeal to the High Court by special leave, but “A”, or Witness J as he is better known, has already run an unusually long and vigorous gauntlet. He waited many years to speak to police, only doing so when the other choirboy abused by Pell died of a heroin overdose. It was at his former schoolfriend’s funeral that he decided to seek justice. As other cases prepared against Pell fell away, it was his that proceeded to trial. The first jury was unable to deliver a verdict. The second believed his version of events over the cardinal’s. Now two Supreme Court justices have made the same determination.

Ferguson stressed the court’s decision was not a mere matter of law: it was a matter of fact. The judges had consulted the same evidence as the jury, so they could decide whether those 12 citizens were in a position to render a safe verdict. The Court of Appeal had reviewed many hours of video testimony and cross-examination and visited the sacristy and the corridor where the offending took place. In particular, they closely examined vestments identical to the ones Pell was wearing on the date of the crimes. These items of clothing had also been available to the jury, and the defence had imbued them with almost otherworldly qualities, pretending they were impervious to shifting or parting by human hands once donned. Not surprisingly, both the jury and judges discovered that these garments were entirely ordinary, not de facto chastity belts.

But the defence was only doing what it could, and after the verdict was upheld, Witness J had a statement delivered, via a representative, in which he was magnanimous. Few witnesses cross-examined by a silk who costs $20,000 a day are thankful for the experience. Witness J is an exception. “I am glad he has had the best legal representation that money can buy,” the statement said of Pell’s team. “There are a lot of checks and balances in the criminal justice system and the appeals process is one of them.” Witness J also reserved some misgivings for “commentators” and “punditries”. His words for Pell’s defenders outside the courtroom could have been unkinder still. Some lay Catholics will not believe the verdict, but some lay Catholics once decided a Coogee fence post contained a divine presence: the ordinary faithful should not be judged too harshly. Those “commentators” are less deserving of mercy.

Australia’s conservative organs have almost all embraced a mythology, by turns unhinged and incoherent, that seeks to turn Pell from an offender into a martyr. Before the summary was even publicly available, columnists were filing stories that decried a miscarriage of justice. This followed a pattern established long before the guilty verdict. In The Australian, John Ferguson indulged his talent for melodrama by suggesting Anne Ferguson had delivered a “death sentence”. Did Pell’s condemners not know the door of the sacristy was unlocked? The appeal judges noted that other similar cases of abuses had occurred in places that carried a high risk of discovery. Did they not know the robes were heavy? The judges had, of course, tried them on. Did they not know Pell had never been accused before? In fact, accusations have followed him his whole career – the church itself had already conducted a 2002 investigation into groping claims.

Still they harped on about the cardinal’s role in the Melbourne Response, a “world-first innovation” in the Catholic Church’s response to child abuse. Pell was establishing it at almost the exact time he was raping choirboys. Was it really conceivable he should be leading the charge against child abuse, and committing it at the same time? Well, yes. Among survivor groups, the Response quickly became notorious for its mean-spiritedness and tight-fistedness. It spent substantially more on lawyers than it did on compensation. While fighting a claim made by an abused altar boy, John Ellis, the church made a novel and successful legal argument to limit payouts – as a legal entity it does not exist, and so cannot be sued. The Melbourne Response was not a good-faith effort to deal with child abuse in the church: it simulated action, while stymieing it at the same time. It also gave an abuser a smokescreen.

In the world of Pell’s defenders, it is not the church that has conducted biased investigations, but the police. And the venom ordinarily aimed at offenders is instead directed at the journalists who reported on them. A conspiracy theory combines the two. After the appeal, an anonymous poster on the libertarian blog Catallaxy Files wrote that “the degree of joint enterprise by Victoria Police and the ABC is not known at this time”, calling them “conjoined twins”. The theory goes that the police, exhibiting a previously unexhibited anti-Catholic animus, trawled for victims, and then the ABC, through 7.30 reporter Louise Milligan, brain-poisoned the jury. No proof or evidence of this “enterprise” is offered or required: the conviction of the cardinal is by itself proof positive. Even this theory is more reality-based than that favoured by Quadrant, though, where Keith Windschuttle is blaming the whole episode on American-based reporting by Rolling Stone magazine.

There is a temptation to write off such sentiments as skunk spray emitted in self-defence, but these are not isolated ideologues. A more finessed version of the same – “What we have witnessed is a combined effort by much of the media, including Australia’s public broadcaster, and elements of Victoria’s law enforcement agency, to systematically blacken the name of someone before he went to trial” – has been offered by the vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Greg Craven. Craven instructed his staff not to comment on the trial until all avenues of appeal had been exhausted, then provided a personal character reference for Pell and authored a post-conviction column in The Catholic Weekly headlined “Poisoning the well of justice”. The Pell Centre at the ACU’s Ballarat campus retains its name, and the staff muzzle remains in place.

Like many of his ilk, Craven cannot restrict himself to a single epithet when referencing Milligan’s book, Cardinal. It is a “hopelessly biased, ill-written, ungrammatical and poorly proof-read volume”. In the time since the book was commissioned by Melbourne University Press, the university’s chancellor, Allan Myers, QC, derided MUP’s tendency to publish “airport trash”, opening a rift with the MUP board that saw four of its directors resign in January. Myers had previously represented Pell as counsel.

Even by the low and gendered standards of Australian public life, the attacks on Milligan, the only journalist to meet and interview Witness J, have been extraordinary. The book resulted in Milligan herself being cross-examined for six-and-a-half hours, during which Pell’s counsel, Robert Richter, suggested she had flirted with an accuser during an interview. “I think it is an absolutely sexist assertion,” she responded.

“Without a doubt this is the toughest story I have ever done,” Milligan later told the ABC. “This is a person who had immense political and cultural power so taking that on is enormous and very, very stressful… Being at the centre of this storm, it doesn’t get any harder than that as a journalist.” Echoing this duress, the reporter who broke the story of the Pell police investigation in the Herald Sun, Lucie Morris-Marr, said the effort had “nearly destroyed” her, and that she had been through “hell”. Andrew Bolt, her own paper’s columnist, tried to undermine her scoop by falsely claiming it had originated with a police leak, a “leak” that was subsequently referred to an anti-corruption investigation. Morris-Marr made an internal complaint about the Bolt column and claims News Corp responded by pushing her out. Just months after she produced a world-first exclusive, Morris-Marr was told there was “no money” left for her contract.

Pell himself was a columnist for The Sunday Telegraph, and a friend of News’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. There have been suggestions this close relationship may have prompted Bolt’s about-face on the cardinal, which had once been far more critical. When Pell gave evidence about the Ballarat paedophile Gerald Ridsdale to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Bolt wrote that the testimony would “stain his reputation forever” and that Pell would be remembered as “the priest who went by the book, not the heart”. Bolt then changed his mind and conducted an exclusive interview with Pell on Sky News. This is not evidence of an enterprise, however, and as so often with the Murdoch empire, no direct instruction is required. It is more indicative of the changing cultural and religious currents at the heart of conservatism, without which the reaction to the Pell case cannot be understood.

“ ‘Catholicism’ is now a dirty word in Australia,” wrote Paul Collins in the National Catholic Reporter, “and as in most Anglophone countries there’s deep-seated sectarian bigotry against Catholics which surfaces in times like these.” But for anyone familiar with Australian history, it was the diminishing of sectarian bigotry that was noteworthy. The old divisions that had defined other famous Australian legal matters, such as the divorce case of the Test cricketer Arthur Coningham, who attended court armed with a revolver and the support of the Orange Order, were gone. So was any Protestant crowing. Only the trial’s title kept a vestige of the old animosity between Windsor and Rome: George Pell v The Queen.

As late as 1950, publications as anodyne as The Methodist called the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism in Australia an unceasing “war”, that would continue “as long as men are even partially free, and as long as they retain an interest in the vital things of the Christian faith”. By the 1970s, the war was virtually over, the two sects declaring an ecumenical truce to combat secularism and socialism. Australia also took a different direction from the United States in this mid-century period. There, legal challenges enforced increasing secularisation of the publicly funded school system. Here, by contrast, the state began funding Catholic institutions in earnest. Controversies over the Eucharist and the order of precedence feel antiquated now, but the ambivalence, scepticism and outright hostility that greeted the foundation institutions, such as the ACU, have lodged in folk memory.

After centuries as a bullied minority, Catholicism now has more adherents in Australia than Anglicanism, and the ruling Liberal Party has changed its predilections, from culturally Protestant into culturally Catholic. These reversals were once unthinkable, and the conservative Catholic ascendancy is at the core of the Pell response. Because it was the same institutions, operating in the same mode of fresh ambition, that turned the conservative establishment Catholic and simultaneously incubated an unparalleled epidemic of child sexual abuse. As power grew, so did abuse, abetted by a deference to authority and the rites of tradition.

This is why Pell’s conviction has been so humiliating not only for the church, but also for the Australian conservative establishment more generally. Often Pell is referred to as “the third-highest ranked priest in the Vatican”, but this overlooks the prelates’ place in international right-wing hierarchy. He joins a select few Australians to attain a level of first-rank international success. In the political realm, only Rupert Murdoch matches him, and they have the simpatico relations of two men meeting in the middle – in the Murdoch papers, Pell broke with church doctrine on global warming; Murdoch, the grandson of a Presbyterian minister, was awarded a papal knighthood for his “unblemished character”. Both Murdoch and his close friend Robert Thomson, the chief executive of News Corp, are not Catholic converts but they are raising their children as Catholics.

These changes cannot be reversed or apologised for. They can only be double or tripled down on, and in some quarters the accusations register only as a new retelling of an old canard: that the Roman church is riddled with sex crimes, refuses to succumb to secular law and operates schools for nefarious purposes. Accountability, like truth, will take time to sink in. Those charges are defended against almost reflexively, and with new allies. But the facts, when stated, are stark. George Pell’s Wikipedia entry now begins like this: “George Pell AC (born 8 June 1941) is an Australian convicted child sex offender and prelate of the Catholic Church”. The most imminent edit is the removal of that “AC”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "The power and hypocrisy of George Pell’s supporters". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.