If there is to be a media prize for unbalanced advocacy in journalism then last Monday’s coverage by the ABC’s 7.30 of Cardinal George Pell deserves to be short-listed at the very least.
Louise Milligan reported on the submission of Gail Furness, counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which had been released earlier that day for consideration by commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan. For the third time in recent months, the tone of Milligan’s report on Pell was hostile. She claimed it was “considered likely” that the royal commission “will make some adverse findings against the cardinal”. Milligan did not say precisely who (allegedly) considers this to be the case.
Early in her report, Milligan said the “royal commission found” that, from 1976, the consultors (who, for a time, included Pell) to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns in Ballarat “had known … that [the Catholic priest Gerald] Ridsdale was abusing children”.
In fact, what was released on Monday was Furness’s submissions to the royal commission. Not the findings of the royal commission.
A similar error was made by Melissa Cunningham in her page one story in the Ballarat Courier on Tuesday.
Milligan covered three matters on which Furness has submitted that the royal commission should make adverse findings against Pell. However, 7.30 viewers were not told that Furness has declined to take up some of the high-profile allegations against Pell that have been widely reported in the media.
For years, 60 Minutes has run the claim of David Ridsdale (Gerald’s nephew) that, in 1993, (the then bishop) Pell had sought to bribe him in order to ensure that he did not report his uncle’s crimes to Victoria Police. That claim was also prominently covered in David Marr’s highly critical book, The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell. Furness has submitted that “the evidence is not sufficient to establish that … Bishop Pell sought to bribe Mr Ridsdale to prevent him going to the police”.
The 7.30 report also neglected to inform viewers that an allegation by a person identified as BWF, who claimed that he went to a presbytery in Ballarat and informed Pell about the crimes of the pedophile brother Edward Dowlan, was not taken up by Furness. In fact, Pell never lived at the presbytery.
Moreover, Milligan did not report that the testimony of a certain BWE, who claimed that Pell had laughed at Ridsdale’s offending with another priest at the Ballarat Catholic Cathedral, was not taken up by Furness. The two priests were not in the same town when the (alleged) conversation took place.
A certain BPL provided a written statement to the royal commission that, in 1970 or 1971, he told (then priest, now journalist) Paul Bongiorno that he had been sexually abused by Ridsdale. Bongiorno advised that he has no recollection of any such conversation. Neither was called to give evidence. Furness adopted a similar approach to BPL’s evidence as she did to that of BWF and BWE (both of whom gave evidence).
Journalists — especially those employed by the ABC, Fairfax Media, Channel Ten’s The Project, The Guardian, Sky News’ Paul Murray Live and The Saturday Paper, all ofwhom led the attacks on Pell — have a duty to at least report the status of allegations against him.
As 7.30 did report, Furness made three specific submissions that the royal commission should make findings against Pell.
First, Furness maintains that Pell was aware that Mulkearns was moving Gerald Ridsdale from parish to parish to cover his crimes. This is a submission based on a belief. There is no written or witness evidence that supports the claim that Pell (when in Ballarat) was aware that Ridsdale was a pedophile.
Second, Furness submits that Timothy Green told Pell in 1974 that Brother Dowlan was improperly touching children, Green, who was not facing Pell at the time, maintains that Pell dismissed his warning as ridiculous. Pell has no memory of the occasion. In any event, Pell did express concern about Dowlan to the chaplain at the college where Dowlan taught. It is unclear what the royal commission will make of this submission in which Furness has preferred the recollection of Green over that of Pell.
However, in an address at the Local Courts of NSW annual conference in August 2006, Justice McClellan warned about “the fallibility of memory”, declaring: “Only rarely, if ever, will a person go to the grave with a clear and unaltered recollection of what happened yesterday, let alone of something that happened years before in their youth.”
The third submission against Pell turns on the time, in the late 1980s and early 90s, when he was auxiliary to the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne Frank Little. Like Mulkearns in Ballarat, Little covered up child sexual abuse in Melbourne. Little regarded Pell as a clerical opponent.
It is true that Pell had some responsibility in the area of Melbourne where father Peter Searson was parish priest in the late 80s and early 90s. It is also true that soon after Pell took over as archbishop of Melbourne, he fired Searson. When the defrocked priest appealed successfully to the Vatican, Pell refused to abide by the Vatican’s orders that Searson be reinstated.
Pell has conceded that, early on, he could have pushed harder with respect to Searson. But he was only one of many in the loop at the time and (unlike Little) had no direct authority over Searson. Evidence presented at the royal commission indicates that no one in the Catholic Education Office told Pell of any concerns about Searson’s offending.
Certainly, Victoria Police knew much more about Searson’s crimes than the (then) auxiliary bishop. But the police did nothing. As Peter Hoysted documented in The Australian on Tuesday, Victoria Police also declined to prosecute pedophile priests in the Ballarat diocese four decades ago. In particular, Victoria Police declined to charge the pedophile monsignor John Day or Gerald Ridsdale.
A close reading of Furness’s submissions with respect to Melbourne and Ballarat — which total 756 pages — indicates that Pell was a peripheral figure in the Ridsdale, Dowlan and Searson matters. He was a relatively junior priest in Ballarat or a mere auxiliary bishop in Melbourne at the time of the crimes of the three pedophiles.
The royal commission had significant bureaucratic resources to interview witnesses and Pell was cross-examined for literally tens of hours.
Despite this, Furness’s adverse submissions with respect to Pell are essentially based on assumptions rather than hard evidence and do not prove improper conduct. But don’t expect to learn any of this by viewing 7.30.