Welcome to what passes for justice and due process in contemporary Australia.
Last Saturday, the Herald Sun in Melbourne led with the screaming page one headline: “Police probe Pell: top secret investigation into sex abuse claims against cardinal”.
The story broke on heraldsun.com.au at 7.45pm the previous day. Cardinal George Pell, the third most senior member of the Holy See, resides in Rome and was advised of the newspaper’s “scoop” in the northern hemisphere evening. He put out a hurried statement denying the allegations.
So what was the evidence for journalist Lucie Morris-Marr’s “exclusive” report? It consisted of “legal sources”, “sources”, “sources close to the police probe”, “one source close to the investigation”, “sources” and “a legal source close to the alleged victim”. And that’s it.
There was also a reference to what the sources “have speculated” about Pell. Really. In other words, not one checkable source was cited.
Sure, Morris-Marr did write that “the Herald Sun is not suggesting the cardinal is guilty, only that there have been allegations made, which are being taken seriously enough by police to justify a year-long investigation”.
Moreover, the newspaper did acknowledge that Victoria Police’s Sano Taskforce has not interviewed Pell about the allegations.
The Herald Sun exclusive was published just before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse resumed its investigations into the Catholic diocese of Ballarat and archdiocese of Melbourne on Monday. Pell will appear as a witness, by a video link from Rome, with respect to both matters.
This will be the cardinal’s third appearance before the royal commission. He already has appeared once in person and once by video link, and also appeared in person at the Victorian parliamentary inquiry (the royal commission has access to all this material).
It seems clear that a section of Victoria Police leaked this material to the Herald Sunin an attempt to discredit Pell on the eve of his latest appearance at the royal commission. This has not been denied by Victoria Police.
In view of this, it is unprofessional that the journalist did not mention that the royal commission is also investigating the manner in which Victoria Police handled instances of clerical child abuse in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.
In other words, Victoria Police has a vested interest in the findings of the royal commission.
There is no evidence that Pell committed sexual assaults against children or that he covered up such crimes.
Yet the Herald Sun’s report, which was covered by other media outlets, has tarnished the cardinal’s reputation for all time irrespective of the findings of the royal commission and Victoria Police (assuming that the police chose to formally investigate the anonymous allegations).
The resultant Pell-hatred can be judged by what passed for comment in sections of the media.
Sky News presenter Derryn Hinch has acknowledged his “prejudice against George Pell”. Even so, the Hinch Live program last Sunday broke new ground. It was one of those so-called media discussions (frequently found on the ABC) where everyone agrees with everyone else and no other view is allowed to be heard.
Mignon Stewart agreed with Hinch who agreed with Martine Harte who agreed with Hinch that Pell had done wrong.
Needless to say, no evidence was cited to support these assertions.
The highlight of the discussion occurred when Harte declared, “you can’t argue with the fact that Taskforce Sano, Victoria Police detectives, apparently have a dossier of allegations” against Pell. How about that? Hinch Live has developed the phenomenon of the “apparent” fact.
It was not much better when lawyer Frank Brennan appeared on ABC Radio’s 702Mornings with Jon Faine last Monday. Anyone familiar with Brennan’s career knows that he is not a member of the George Pell fan club. Even so, he was introduced as someone coming “into bat on behalf of, well, due process and Cardinal Pell”.
Faine, a long-time Pell critic, happens to be a trained lawyer. Yet he took objection to Brennan’s comment that it was improper that “some disaffected members within the Victoria Police force, either directly or through intermediaries” were providing to the media “sensational” and “uninvestigated” allegations.
This did not trouble the ABC’s lawyer-journalist one little bit.
Faine declared “there is a court of public opinion quite separate from the court of the royal commission”. He went on to endorse the “old saying” that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.
In other words, don’t worry about evidence; just let undocumented rumour prevail in “the court of public opinion”.
Faine went on to advise listeners that members of the royal commission “are not like jurors; they’re professional judges”. This is hopelessly wrong. Six members sit on the royal commission, only two are judges and one is a retired police commissioner.
Faine should know better.
On Tuesday, there was more of the same on ABC Radio 702. Vivian Waller, who is appearing for 10 victims before the royal commission, was interviewed by fill-inMornings presenter James O’Loughlin. She alleged that, in Ballarat, Pell had been involved in moving a pedophile priest from parish to parish and that when archbishop of Melbourne, between 1996 and 2001, “there were many offending priests operating in that diocese”. There is no evidence for either assertion.
Allegations against prominent individuals, dead or alive, are not confined to Australia. Ted Heath (1916-2005) was accused of sexually assaulting boys. Members of Wiltshire Police even stood outside the former British prime minister’s house and called for evidence concerning his alleged crimes. None was forthcoming.
Scotland Yard recently apologised to the widow of prominent British politician Leon Brittan (1939-2015) for not advising before his death that Brittan had been cleared of an alleged rape of “Jane” in 1967.
Last year the BBC Panorama program revealed that “David”, who alleged sex crimes by high-profile men in Westminster, just made up some of the names of the alleged offenders.
Pedophilia is a grievous crime, so grievous that those accused are entitled to a fair hearing based on tested evidence. The court of public opinion, as advocated by Faine and practised by the likes of Morris-Marr, Hinch, Harte and Waller, is not compatible with justice or due process.