The long running events surrounding the accusations, criminal charges, trials, imprisonment, appeals and eventual exoneration of Australia’s Cardinal George Pell have been extensively covered both in the media and in court documents. However, only with the unanimous judgement of the full bench of the High Court of Australia, in favour of George Pell, could the full story be unravelled. It is a story of injustice, considerable incompetence on the part of Victoria Police, a damning media campaign against Pell over years and a church weakened by a prejudicial Royal Commission into child sexual abuse. To document and further discuss the lessons to be learned from the saga, Frank Brennan SJ, author of Observations on The Pell Proceedings, Gerard Henderson, author of Cardinal Pell, The Media Pile-on & Collective Guilt along with Monica Doumit, Director, Public Affairs & Engagement, Archdiocese of Sydney and columnist with The Catholic Weekly spoke for The Sydney Institute on Tuesday 8 March 2022.

LESSONS FROM THE PELL CASE – TWO YEARS AFTER THE HIGH COURT DECISION

MONICA DOUMIT

I think this is the first time I’ve been asked to speak publicly about the Cardinal’s case and, given that, I want to begin this evening by sharing a story from the beginnings of this saga.

Louise Milligan’s story about the allegations against Cardinal Pell was screened on ABC TV’s 7.30 program on Wednesday, 27 July 2016. At the time, I was part of the communications team at the Archdiocese of Sydney. World Youth Day was underway in Poland, and so a number of the Archdiocesan staff, including all the senior communications staff, were overseas.

We knew that a program was in the works, but on the Wednesday morning, we were advised the program would air that evening. With most of the comms team overseas, I ended up being responsible for getting statements from the Cardinal and from Archbishop Fisher out to the media and onto our website that night.

As 7.30pm approached, my phone rang. It was the Cardinal’s private secretary in Rome. I was asked to put my phone close to the television with the volume up, so that they could listen to the program.

As 7.30pm approached, my phone rang. It was the Cardinal’s private secretary in Rome. I was asked to put my phone close to the television with the volume up, so that they could listen to the program. It would be the first time the Cardinal would hear the full extent of the accusations made against him.

In that program, we heard the swimming pool allegations, St Patrick’s Cathedral abuse allegations for which the Cardinal was convicted before that decision was quashed in a unanimous judgment of the High Court, and other allegations as well.

The program ended, and I looked over at my phone, still sitting close to the television with the Cardinal on the other end of the line.

My hand trembled as I picked it up and put it to my ear. “Your Eminence,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.” He was completely practical. He told me that he found it difficult to hear in parts. “We will type up a transcript right now and get it across to you as soon as possible,” I said. The Cardinal apologised for the trouble. He said he knew it had been a long day, that it was already late in the evening and that we still had a few hours of work ahead of us. I told him that at this point, work was the only way I could be of any assistance to him or anyone else, and that I was glad to do it.

And get to work we did. We typed up a transcript, sent it across to the Cardinal and, as statements were written and rewritten, the final ones were sent to the media. Then I jumped in a cab and went home. I think it was about 2am.

While I was on the way home, my phone rang. It was the communications director, calling from overseas. We had already spoken several times that night, so it wasn’t unusual that she called. But her opening line was odd.

“Are you okay?” she asked me. I told her I was fine and that the statements had gone to the press and been published online, that I was going to get a few hours’ sleep and would then be back in the office to deal with the media onslaught.

“But are you okay?” she asked. “Yep, totally fine,” I told her. She explained that she knew I would be, but that the Cardinal had insisted she call because he was worried about me. “She sounded terribly upset on the phone.”

That is the measure of the man we are talking about this evening. To paraphrase the West Wing, while it might not have been the worst day of his life, up until that point, it was certainly in the top five.He didn’t know me very well; we had met only a couple of times. And, yet, in the midst of being accused of horrific crimes on national television, a reputation destroyed, facing the prospect of a media tsunami, of criminal charges and needing to step down from his senior role in the Vatican, he made sure that the comms staffer back in Sydney was okay because she was upset.

He didn’t know me very well; we had met only a couple of times. And, yet, in the midst of being accused of horrific crimes on national television, a reputation destroyed, facing the prospect of a media tsunami, of criminal charges and needing to step down from his senior role in the Vatican, he made sure that the comms staffer back in Sydney was okay because she was upset.

I wanted to tell this story upfront because when I look back on the Cardinal’s trial, imprisonment and vindication, this is the most important memory of them all. A church leader, a culture warrior, a staunch defender of truth and orthodoxy. All that is true, but I want to say that first and foremost, he is a pastor who cares for people.

What I would like to address over the next few minutes, though, are the unanswered questions that remain two years after the Cardinal walked free from Barwon Prison. His unanimous acquittal might seem like the end of the story, but it isn’t. Serious questions remain unanswered, and I want to speak to just a few of them briefly.

We’ll start with Victoria Police

Victoria Police, in March 2013 – just as the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was beginning – established Operation Tethering. Tethering was described by the police as an “intel probe” to find out whether there were any unreported abuse allegations against Cardinal George Pell.

It commenced without a complaint of abuse having been made against him and ran for a year before anyone came forward with an allegation.

It was a crime in search of a complainant.

As it went on, Tethering also attempted to resurrect an abuse complaint from 2002 that had already been investigated and discussed, but the complainant in that instance wanted no part of it.

As it went on, Tethering also attempted to resurrect an abuse complaint from 2002 that had already been investigated and discussed, but the complainant in that instance wanted no part of it.

The first unanswered question is this. With all the reported crimes and ongoing cases of child abuse in Victoria, why was a year’s worth of police investigative time and resources, not to mention taxpayer dollars, dedicated to constructing a case where no abuse had been alleged?

This isn’t just about the Cardinal. In the 2013-14 financial year, 56,515 children were reported to child protection authorities as being at risk of significant harm. 56,515 children equates to one child every 10 minutes being reported to authorities. More than 20,000 of those children waited more than two months for an investigation to be done.

Two years on from the Pell acquittal, we still don’t have an answer as to why Victoria Police was so intent on what Detective Sergeant Christopher Reed conceded was a “get Pell operation” Nor do we have any answers as to what evidence Victoria Police had when they were considering using the pursuit of the Cardinal to distract from the Lawyer X scandal.

Two years on from the Pell acquittal, we still don’t have an answer as to why Victoria Police was so intent on what Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan conceded could be regarded as a “get Pell operation”

In April 2014, as details of Nicola Gobbo’s informing for VicPol were coming to light, there was a suggestion that announcements about Cardinal Pell could distract media and public attention from the fact that police were using a defence lawyer as an informant against her own clients. Media and Corporate Comms associate director, Charlie Morton, wrote to Deputy Police Commissioner Graham Ashton, telling him there was no need to accept radio interviews to deal with the Lawyer X scandal: “The Pell stuff is coming tomorrow and will knock this way off the front page.”

Nothing about the Cardinal appeared in the media back in April 2014. It’s unclear what the Police had at the time, given we know that Operation Tethering – which began in March 2013 – ran for more than a year before someone came forward.

What exactly was Victoria Police planning to announce that day? Given the timeframe, it would have been very limited information, perhaps that someone had come forward with an allegation. That’s probably the upper limit of what they could have had at the time. Announcing it would have been incredibly prejudicial, not only to the Cardinal but also to their own investigation. Were they willing to trade it in order to have something big enough, as they put it, to knock the Lawyer X scandal off the front page? And what changed their mind?

The following year saw a plan to arrest and question Cardinal Pell upon his return to Australia to testify at the Royal Commission in December 2015. By this time, Witness J had apparently come forward, but Victoria Police said separately that they would have had to release the Cardinal if he denied the allegations or even refused to make comment on them. If statements from J were not enough at the time to detain the Cardinal, how was it that they became enough to charge him in June 2017? The statements from J remained the only evidence police and prosecutors had. But that wasn’t enough to stop the next scene of the pantomime playing out. The only thing that did stop it was the Cardinal’s heart condition, which prevented him from flying home as scheduled.

If statements from J were not enough at the time to detain the Cardinal, how was it that they became enough to charge him in June 2017?

LESSONS FROM THE PELL CASE – TWO YEARS AFTER THE HIGH COURT DECISION