George Pell evidence rejected in royal commission counsel submissions
In popular renderings the devil appears sly and cultured, artfully subtle in his manipulations. Man must ward against his guileful incursions, made through the windows of lust and vanity. But there was nothing subtle about Father Peter Searson. For decades, the priest was wildly and unapologetically deviant. Ordained in Rome in 1962, in church circles Searson was notorious by 1984, when senior clergy exiled him not to police custody but an outer-Melbourne parish. Once there, he would terrorise the children of Doveton for 13 years.
The obviousness of Searson’s crimes has mattered a great deal during the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, as it has for questions regarding Cardinal George Pell’s knowledge of Searson’s – and others’ – crimes. This week, the royal commission published approximately 800 pages of submissions regarding its Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne case study. It was an unusual step – submissions have ordinarily been published alongside final case study reports – and the 300-plus pages of submissions from counsel assisting, Gail Furness, SC, and Stephen Free, rejected much of Cardinal Pell’s evidence given earlier this year about his work in the Melbourne church in the 1980s and ’90s. It comes in a week when the federal government announced details of a national compensation scheme for victims of institutionalised child abuse, reflecting one of the major recommendations made by the commission last year.
In the 1980s, Victoria’s goldfields became something of an illegal dumping ground for rapist priests. It was during this time that Pell served as a consultor to Bishop Mulkearns in Ballarat, before moving to the city in 1987 as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne.
Pell’s evidence has been that his time in Ballarat was peripheral and that he had been deceived by others on the consultors’ committee – the committee that decided upon shuffling the rapist Gerald Ridsdale between parishes. When he was elevated to auxiliary bishop, Pell says he was then blinded by a conspiracy to withhold from him information about offending priests – not least from the Catholic Education Office, which he said had actively deceived him.
In the submissions published this week, counsel assisting wrote this of the consultors’ meetings with Bishop Mulkearns: “It is submitted it was the common understanding of the meeting that complaints that Ridsdale had sexually abused children was the reason it had become necessary to move him.
“It follows that the conduct of any consultor who agreed to move Ridsdale, or indeed any priest, with knowledge of allegations of child sexual abuse made against them, is unacceptable.”
Counsel assisting then had this to say of Pell’s evidence about the Catholic Education Office: “Nor is there any evidence, or logical reason, despite the theory advanced by Cardinal Pell, that the [office] or any of its officers wished to keep Searson in Doveton and were resistant to any moves to the contrary.
“The matters known to Cardinal Pell on his own evidence ... were sufficient that he ought reasonably to have concluded that more serious action needed to be taken in relation to Searson.”
In its own submission, the archdiocese of Melbourne also rejected Pell’s evidence regarding the Catholic Education Office’s deception. “No officer or employee of the [office] deliberately withheld information from Cardinal Pell, or deliberately set out to deceive him,” it said.
“The commission should accept that neither the [office] or any of its officers at any time intentionally concealed from the archdiocese any information that they received about Searson.”
The commission does not have to accept its assisting counsel’s submissions, but it would be unusual if they were ignored. And they were hardly surprising: the submissions reflected commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan’s own scepticism of Pell’s evidence, expressed during the questioning itself. I am now told that the church and Pell’s legal counsel are wondering not whether the final report will dilute these submissions’ findings, but rather whether they will aggressively expand upon them. The language of this submission is careful in saying that Pell’s evidence should be rejected, but never stating that he lied.
Pell’s legal counsel made its own submissions in which they argued strongly that there was no evidence Pell knew of Ridsdale’s offending during Pell’s time as consultor to Bishop Mulkearns. The submission stated: “The commission could not be ‘comfortably satisfied’ that any of the allegations made against Cardinal Pell has been made out.
“It is important that when one comes to judge conduct of someone in the 1970s, that judgement is undertaken in the context of states of mind which existed at that time and not by reference to the greater community appreciation which has formed in later years.”
Complaints about Searson
During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s the allegations against Searson were extraordinary: the serial rape and molestation of children; threatening a child with a knife; threatening another with a gun; gutting a bird with a screwdriver before a group of stunned children.
There’s a story of him opening an occupied coffin before his young brethren; another of him stalking children’s toilets. He had a fondness for army uniforms and guns, stole tens of thousands of dollars from the church, and, according to countless testimonies of former colleagues, was cruel, erratic and intimidating.
The community didn’t suffer quietly. Almost immediately upon Searson’s arrival, the church began receiving letters from parents concerned about the priest’s behaviour. They have been published this week on the royal commission’s website, along with the legal submissions. “Dear Father, I am writing to tell you how worried I am about our parish priest Father Peter Searson,” one parent wrote to the vicar general in 1986. “I believe he is harmful to the parishioners of Doveton or anywhere else he may go … I have a 10-year-old daughter who no longer attends reconciliation for the fear she has of this man. Her best girlfriend has left our school thanks to this man. I believe he has done things that should not have been done.”
A submission made on behalf of one of Searson’s victims reveals the extent of the trauma. This victim was abused at Sunbury parish, Searson’s place of employment before he was moved to Doveton in 1984. Referring to the victim by the pseudonym BVD, the submission states that he was “severely traumatised” by Searson’s abuse, and that he had led a “life consumed by self-loathing”. The submission states: “BVD remains unable to trust and is unable to maintain romantic or sexual relationships or have a family of his own. BVD has attempted to end his life on three occasions and was placed in a psychiatric hospital for a five-day period.”
The evidence suggests an extravagant and criminal madness sustained over decades by Searson. None of it subtle. No one, it seems, trusted him. Plenty feared him. “He was widely regarded as untrustworthy, violent, psychologically unstable, unpleasant, psychotic, unbalanced and an extremely devious and dangerous man,” read one of the submissions published this week.
In 1989, as auxiliary bishop, Pell was given a long sheet of allegations made against the priest. Regardless, Searson remained at the parish until 1997. A prolific offender, he left a generation of abuse victims in Doveton. His arrival there had the effect of irradiating a community.
Church credibility at stake
“There is a psychosexual immaturity in the Catholic Church,” a senior church figure told me this week. “And there’s an ease of hiding it in the clerical model. Acting out could be psychologically justified by asking for forgiveness. Any pathology would be continued, to be fed rather than dealt with.
“Some in the church might think they are answerable only to church law. Perhaps. The issue is how entrenched the defensiveness of the church is. The health of the [Catholic] soul is in the degree to which people can be painfully honest. This is a hugely demoralising. It’s hypocrisy writ large for a lot of people and many are voting with their feet. The healthy part is to identify their faith separately from the operations of the church.”
The question many are asking is how the church may reclaim its moral credibility. Its squalid past has threatened its future – it has also largely muted its voice on social issues. And the pews are emptying. In Australia today, only 9 per cent of Christians admit to practising their faith at least once a month.
Final report to come
While some believe George Pell is being scapegoated, there is, of course, the simple fact that he had an elevated responsibility for Melbourne parishioners in the 1980s and ’90s. And as his own submission makes clear, “George Pell may now be a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and he accepts by virtue of that position that he is subjected to greater scrutiny than others.” It also makes clear that Cardinal Pell’s lofty position is no justification for exaggerating the evidence against him. Which is true, but few believe that it has been.
This is far from over. The publication of the commission submissions comes just a week after Victoria Police confirmed that members of their child abuse taskforce, SANO, had flown to Rome to interview Pell about allegations of abuse made against him. There will still be the commissioner’s final report on the Catholic abuses in Victoria, and the establishment of the national redress scheme. Many think it is a useful kind of pain – the reckoning that comes before reformation.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 5, 2016 as "Pell and back". Subscribe here.