As far as I am aware, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had not previously flagged a date for the expected appearance of any witness.

But last week it issued a witness list for its latest case study. Only one expected appearance date was specified, namely “Cardinal ­George Pell (from 16 December approx.)”.

This advance notice is helpful to the media to prepare for the appearance of the royal commission’s highest profile witness so far, who happens to be the third most senior figure in the Vatican.

Pell has his supporters and opponents inside and outside the Catholic Church.

Frank Brennan, the Jesuit priest and author, has been a considered critic of the present prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, on some matters, through the years. However, in an article published in the online Eureka Street magazine on November 23, Brennan essentially called for Pell to receive a fair go at the royal commission and in the media.

Brennan made the point that the royal commission “has spared no effort in scrutinising” Pell’s “past actions”. He added that “no one else has been called three times before the commission”.

Justice Peter McClellan and his fellow commissioners have decided to highlight Pell’s forthcoming appearance in Melbourne, where he will be examined about his time as a priest in the Ballarat diocese (1966-85) and as an auxiliary bishop (1987-96) and later archbishop (1996-2001) of the Melbourne archdiocese.

Previously Pell has given evidence to the royal commission about his time as Catholic archbishop of Sydney and (to a lesser extent) Melbourne.

He also gave sworn testimony to the Victorian parliament’s inquiry into the handling of child sexual abuse by religious and other non-government organisations, which reported its findings in 2013.

Without question, the name most commonly associated with issues of child sexual abuse in Australian religious, secular and government institutions is that of Pell. Not that of convicted pedophile and former Catholic priest Gerald Ridsdale. And not that of other offenders who have been convicted of child sexual abuse and/or named and shamed at the royal commission.

This despite the fact Pell was one of the first figures in church or state who acknowledged and addressed the crime of child sexual abuse. In 1996, just three months after succeeding Frank Little as Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Pell set up what was called the Melbourne Response. The following year, the other Catholic archdioceses and dioceses created Towards Healing.

It is true the Catholic Church was far too slow in acknowledging the crime of child sexual abuse by priests and brothers.

Even so, it acted before other Christian religions (the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church) as well as non-religious and government institutions.

Sure, there has been criticism of the administration of the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing, particularly concerning the level of compensation paid. Yet it is also true that instances of clerical child abuse dropped significantly in the Catholic Church from the mid-1990s.

Even so, Pell has been pilloried by his critics in the media and elsewhere. In the forefront of the campaign against him are Fairfax Media, much of the ABC, the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes and the Sky News programs Paul Murray Live and Hinch Live. Pell’s many media critics essentially have run the case for the prosecution with alternative views effectively censored. This “case for the prosecution” mentality even finds expression at the royal commission. In its hearing on the Ballarat diocese, McClellan took the unusual step of speaking to Ridsdale in Ararat prison (near Ballarat) before the latter was called to give a lengthy testimony in the public hearings.

The transcript indicates that McClellan became considerably annoyed with Ridsdale’s evidence, suggesting that what he had said at the “private hearing” differed from what he was telling the royal commission. McClellan asked Ridsdale whether he had “had any visitors in the jail since” his private discussion. Ridsdale replied he had had one visit from a retired priest and possibly one from his sister. Whereupon McClellan warned Ridsdale that “there will be a record of people who have been to see you in jail”. At the time, journalists were reporting that Pell had visited Ballarat. The inference could readily be taken from this exchange that Pell had visited Ridsdale in prison.

There is no evidence Pell went anywhere near Ararat prison. Moreover, no evidence has been presented to the royal commission that Pell — or other priests in the Ballarat diocese at the time, including Paul Bongiorno, now a journalist — had any idea that Ridsdale was a sexual predator.

Until at least two decades ago, archbishops and bishops reigned supreme in their areas of responsibility and reported directly to the Pope in Rome. There is evidence before the royal commission that Ronald Mulkearns (bishop of Ballarat from 1971 to 1997) and Little (archbishop of Melbourne from 1974 to 1996) were aware of pedophile priests.

Pell had no responsibility over other priests when he was in Ballarat. Moreover, he was only an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne when Little handled allegations of clerical child sexual abuse.

Like Mulkearns, Little was a liberal (in the American sense of the term) or progressive archbishop. He did not welcome Pope John Paul II’s appointment of the theologically conservative Pell as an auxiliary bishop.

Pell’s evidence at the royal commission is awaited but, so far, there is no evidence that he had any substantial influence over Little on any matter.

Already the royal commission has preferred the recall of two witnesses to that of Pell.

This despite the fact, in one instance, Pell’s memory was supported by others. In Melbourne, for the first time, Pell will have his own legal counsel to cross-examine two victims — not about the abuse they suffered but in relation to their memories of what they allegedly told Pell in 1974 and 1993 respectively.

In view of the seriousness of the matter, and the interest of the “gotcha” media in the Cardinal’s advertised appearance as a witness before the royal commission, this is fair and appropriate.

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