Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell By Louise Milligan,

  • Melbourne University Press, 2017
  • ISBN: 9780522871340
  • Rrp $34.99

– With a memoir piece from John Clifton who attended St Francis Xavier private school – the Ballarat school George Pell ministered to in the 1970s.

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According to Melbourne University Press, Cardinal uncovers “uncomfortable truths about a culture of sexual entitlement, abuse of trust and how ambition can silence evil” in the Catholic Church.  In an email forwarded to me on 30 May 2017, MUP chief executive Louise Adler wrote that Cardinal is an “important contribution to the community’s understanding of the Catholic Church’s response to child abuse”.  Ms Adler was defending Louise Milligan’s refusal to answer questions about Cardinal – despite the fact that her journalistic career has been built on asking questions of others.

In fact, Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell is neither of the above.  Cardinal  does not uncover “uncomfortable truths” about the Catholic Church.  The scandal of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has been known for decades.  Nor is the book a contribution to “the community’s understanding of the Catholic Church’s response to child sexual abuse”. As the author acknowledged when interviewed on the ABC TV News Breakfast program on 17 May 2017, Cardinal was written “from the complainants’ point of view”.

So Cardinal is not an objective analysis of either the Catholic Church or Cardinal George Pell.  Rather, it is the case for the prosecution – primarily researched by ABC journalist Louise Milligan while working for the taxpayer funded public broadcaster.

However, Milligan’s case for the prosecution is not merely a personal attack on George Pell. The author’s agenda is wider than this.  She takes the side of the Catholic liberals or progressives against the Catholic conservatives in the debate within the Church over faith and morals.  George Pell, the anti-hero of Cardinal, is one of the high profile social conservatives within contemporary Catholicism – and, as such, an enemy of self-proclaimed progressives.

According to the publisher’s blurb, Milligan “is Irish-born and was raised a devout Catholic”.  The ABC is replete with both former Catholics along with progressive Catholics who want the Church to reform.  The ABC is also a Conservative-Free-Zone – without a conservative presenter, producer or editor in any of its prominent programs.  So Milligan, an apparently disillusioned ex-Catholic, fits very well within the ABC culture – which also accommodates a number of atheists, many of the sneering disposition.  The author sets out her position early in Cardinal  where she writes:

While Pell sniffed the wind [of change within Catholicism at the time of Vatican II], he did not go with the revolution.  Young Pell, ordained a priest at St Peter’s Basilica in December 1966 to the strains of Bach’s Fantasia in G, would embrace rigid orthodoxy and reject the primacy of the conscience.

Elsewhere, Milligan castigates Pell for having “railed against the primacy of conscience”. As the author (who exhibits scant historical knowledge) should know, the debate on conscience within Catholicism goes back to before the Reformation. Milligan apparently believes in the primacy of conscience.  Pell, on the other hand, accepts the teaching authority of the Catholic Church – as embodied in Saint Peter and his successors.  Like many disillusioned ex-Catholics, Milligan overlooks the fact that Catholicism is not compulsory.  If you no longer believe – then you can leave.

In her hatchet job on Cardinal Pell, Milligan has interviewed his critics within the Church.  Not one Pell supporter was interviewed for this book.  Self-proclaimed progressives or liberals within the Church get a sympathetic run in Cardinal.  Including Fr Noel Brady, Fr Paul Connell, Bishop Hilton Deakin, Fr Michael Kelly S.J., Fr Bob McGuire, Bishop Bill Morris, Bishop Pat Power, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and Fr Bill Uren S.J. and more besides.

And then there are the large number of anonymous clerical sources quoted against Cardinal Pell – including “one senior member of a religious order”, “one of the most senior priests on the Curia of the Melbourne Archdiocese”, “one Church official”, “officials in the Catholic Church” and so on.  This use of anonymous sources raises serious problems about the standard of evidence which Melbourne University Press regards as suitable for publication.

Cardinal is the case for the prosecution with respect to George Pell concerning his contemporary religious beliefs and his (alleged) past assaults on boys. In both regards, Ms Milligan’s study fails the test of scholarship.  Here’s why – as documented in The Ten Howlers in Louise Milligan’s Cardinal.


  1. In which George Pell is found “guilty” by MUP before charges are laid or a trial held.

In her first chapter, Louise Milligan refers to allegations concerning (then) Archbishop Pell’s sexual assault of a choir boy at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne sometime between 1996 and 2001.  On the basis of believing a single complainant, Milligan claims that Pell has an “ugly secret”. Later in the book – referring to two complainants who alleged that (then) Fr. Pell improperly touched them at the Eureka Pool in Ballarat some four decades ago – Milligan declares that Pell “will” be defended by a highly paid Queen’s Counsel.

In other words, Milligan knows both that Pell is guilty and that he “will” be charged. That’s not scholarship – it’s more like prophecy.

  1. In which George Pell is held to be guilty on the basis of memory.

Louise Milligan seems to believe that an author is entitled to believe what he or she wants to believe if it is in line with their thesis.  She appears to have no understanding that memory is highly fallible.  Some people have bad memories.  Some exaggerate. Others have clear “recollections” of events which never happened.  Some lie. And then there is the common occurrence of mistaken identity.

In Cardinal, Milligan has accepted as accurate the recollections of an anonymous one-time choir boy circa 1998 and three identified men who claim they were improperly touched by Pell circa 1978.  There is no forensic, witness or circumstantial evidence to support any of these claims.

In view of this, Cardinal Pell should be given the assumption of innocence prior to a trial and conviction.  But he does not receive this in Cardinal.

More broadly, Ms Milligan accepts the validity of a person’s memory when it is detrimental to Pell’s cause but she acknowledges that memory can be fallible when it is supportive of Pell.

At Page 101 – when rationalising an inaccurate description of George Pell by one of his accusers – the author writes:  “Memory does strange things when it comes to visual descriptions of people”. Yet, elsewhere in Cardinal, she accepts as accurate the recollections of individuals who have seen George Pell on television in recent times and claim that this is the person they came across 30 to 40 years previously.

  1. In which George Pell is held to be guilty on the basis of anonymous sources.

Cardinal is replete with the views of Pell-accusers who are not willing to give their names.  They include “one senior member of a religious order”, “another Royal Commission source”, “one of the most senior priests on the Curia of the Melbourne Archdiocese at the time”, “one Church official”, “officials in the church”, “a friend…who is a mother in the neighbourhood”, “someone who works around the Royal Commission”, “the father-in-law of an ABC journalist”, “people who knew [George Pell] in his Ballarat days” – and more besides – plus the occasional “many”.  The allegations at Pages 88 and 281 – which go to George Pell’s character – are highly damaging. But they are unsourced.

  1. In which the author pretends that her quotations reflect real conversations.

Two examples illustrate the author’s tactic as pretending to quote George Pell’s statements against him. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that any such conversation ever took place, the author places in direct quotes the recollection of a critic of Cardinal Pell who relates – word for word – a conversation which Pell had with her cousin. This despite the fact that (i) this occurred over two decades ago, (ii) the woman concedes to being in the room next door to where the conversation took place and (iii) Pell was (allegedly) determined that the person could not hear what he said to her cousin.  This would be uncharacteristic behaviour – in view of the fact that Milligan maintains Pell has a “steel-trap mind”. He would be unlikely to speak so loudly that he could be heard between rooms while (allegedly) attempting to have a secret conversation.  In any event, Milligan quotes the alleged overheard conversation in direct quotes.

  1. In which the author fudges time to advance her case.

At Pages 129-130, Milligan writes that Cardinal Pell was fit enough to turn up at an event in Ballarat “just before he gave video link evidence” from Rome to the Royal Commission on account of not being medically fit to travel to Australia to appear in person.  Cardinal Pell was in Ballarat in March 2015 and he was due to give evidence to the Royal Commission in December 2015 – nine months later.  The Royal Commission accepted medical advice that he was not fit to travel to Australia. As a matter of record, Pell previously appeared once in person before the Royal Commission – and he was not the only witness to appear by video-link.

This is an important point – since the author implies that George Pell suddenly developed a heart condition which prevented him from flying from Rome to Australia for hearings of the Royal Commission.  Milligan maintains that it is accurate to state that March 2015 is “just before” December 2015 – and insufficient time for a 73 year old man, who already had experienced two heart attacks, to suffer a further deterioration in health. She provides no medical advice from a heart specialist to support her serious allegation.

  1. In which the author is selective in her use of evidence.

Louise Milligan is highly critical of (then) Bishop Pell’s handling of Fr Peter Searson in Melbourne when he (Pell) was an auxiliary bishop – but she fails to mention that, when he became Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell sacked Searson and refused to abide by a Vatican decision that he be re-instated.

On Page 19 the author writes that George Pell “infamously shared the [Ballarat East] presbytery with [Gerald] Ridsdale for a year.” At Page 142 she (incorrectly) states that Gerald Ridsdale shared a presbytery for a year with Paul Bongiorno in Ballarat East.  It was, in fact, Warrnambool where Ridsdale and Bongiorno shared accommodation – as the evidence before the Royal Commission makes clear. Ms Milligan does not explain why Fr Pell’s accommodation with Ridsdale was “infamous” – but not (then) Fr. Bongiorno’s accommodation with Ridsdale.

  1. In which the author dismisses findings which are inconsistent with her position.

In dealing with the decision of former judge Alan Southwell QC’s finding that Phillip Scott’s complaint – with respect to an alleged assault in 1961 – against George Pell was not upheld, the author writes:

So in the end, the character assassination of Scott was successful – it achieved its aim – to keep Pell as Archbishop of Sydney.

The clear imputation is that Alan Southwell QC’s decision in this matter was affected by the (alleged) character assassination of Mr Scott which occurred outside the hearing in the media. However, she produces no evidence that there was any causal relationship between the alleged character assassination of Mr Scott in the media – and Judge Southwell’s decision. The author seems to believe that a QC, who is a former judge, would have been so unprofessional to allow media reports to influence his finding. Another unsupported assertion.

  1. In which the author believes that such words as “if” and “perhaps” are suitable in a book of contemporary history.

According to MUP, Cardinal is based on “forensic and meticulous” research.  If this was the case, it would not have been necessary for the author to use the words “if” and “perhaps” when attempting to build the case for the prosecution against George Pell.  Cardinal contains 296 occasions in which the word “if” is used – frequently in building the author’s case for the prosecution.  How unprofessional can you get?

  1. In which the author adopts a double standard with respect to the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has certainly not been friendly to Cardinal Pell.  Indeed Justice Peter McClellan and counsel-assisting Gail Furness SC were, at times, hostile to the person who spent more time in the witness box than any other.

In Cardinal, Louise Milligan clearly believes the testimony against George Pell provided by Fr Noel Brady and a person named “Sue”.  This despite the fact that the Royal Commission did not bother to call either Fr Brady or Sue to give evidence and can only be assumed to not have regarded their evidence as important.

  1. In which the author rationalises actions of Victoria Police in her eagerness to put the case for the prosecution.

On 28 July 2016, the day after the ABC TV 7.30 program gave its reporter Louise Milligan an entire 30 minutes to launch her Pell prosecution, Victoria Police chief Graham Ashton appeared on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW program. During the interview, Ashton referred to the men who had made the allegations about (then) Fr Pell’s activities in the Eureka Poll as “victims”. This was clearly a prejudicial statement – the appropriate term was complainants, since their allegations have yet to be proven in a court of law.

However, to Milligan, a little bit of unprofessional police behaviour is not a problem when it’s a matter of running the case for the prosecution against George Pell.  You see, according to Milligan, Commissioner Ashton just used a poor form of expression – that’s all:

Ashton’s use of the word “victims” instead of complainants incensed Pell’s supporters.  Within days, News Limited commentators, including The Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson, pointed out that it showed that Ashton was prejudging the matter. To me, it seems more like a case of poorly used language….

So, according to Ms Milligan, it’s okay for Victoria Police to classify two men who have made allegations against Cardinal Pell as “victims” before anyone has been charged with an offence – still less convicted.

* * * * *

Louise Milligan’s rationalisation of Commissioner Ashton’s error as mere poor expression – which, by the way, was not corrected – demonstrates that Cardinal is not a scholarly work but merely a hatchet job.  Yet not just an attempt at character assassination.  Any decision by Victoria Police to charge Cardinal Pell – which Louise Milligan is barracking for – would strike at the reputation of one of the leading social conservatives in the Vatican.  Milligan and her supporters have a lot at stake in prosecuting the case against George Pell.  Indeed, the book’s title anticipates his fall.

It appears that Louise Milligan’s reluctance to enter into a discussion about Cardinal turns on her determination not to have her case for the prosecution weakened in any way. Even authors who have their books ghost-written usually attempt to answer questions about work which appears in their name.  But not Louise Milligan – the 2017 Golden Quill Winner – who loves criticising others but is too scared to answer her own correspondence.



The earliest memories of my nearly 45 year friendship with the now Cardinal Pell were the childhood ones at St. Francis Xavier College Primary School. There were a handful boarders and the rest were us day kids. The school known locally as Villa Maria is tucked away in the hills as you enter Ballarat from the east. It was a private school run by the nuns of the Sisters of Mercy order, with Fr. George Pell guiding its direction. Luckily now for us kids, it was not connected to the parish school network under Bishop Mulkearns’ authority.

Louise Milligan tries hard to link Fr. Pell to the parish school of St. Allipius. He had no roles at all. Gerard Ridsdale was the parish priest next door at St Allipus and also chaplain to their school. Fr. Pell had many roles at our school Villa Maria. He was our chaplain, football coach, swimming supervisor, and in charge of taking the few boarders and day kids on outings. These outings could be the pool, beach or even the footy in Melbourne, Richmond games only, of course. We all learnt to swim at the Eureka Pool because it was so close to the school. l remember also the heated YMCA pool as well on occasions – no doubt the winter months. Fr. Pell would always be doing his laps as we mucked about.

l loved footy. So being in Fr. Pell’s team was great because the games were played in school time. At training doing circle-work, l can still see the big man in his daggy looking trackies and high over-the-ankle boots. All of us would be madly trying to get a hand pass from him. After footy training one afternoon when the day kids were getting picked up – my mother tells me how Fr.Pell would take the boarders back in and catch up with the nuns. She found him with boots off and feet in front of the stove in the kitchen. The nuns liked to spoil him – she would say. When speaking to past students we all have our own special memories of Villa. l even spoke to a boarder recently and he said they were a tight little group with only good memories.

During these years my parents – but mainly my mother had good contact with Fr. Pell. His parents had the pub on our street so he often walked past and dropped in on her. l had a brother two grades above me and a sister two grades below. Those two went through teachers college in Ballarat (Aquinas) – with Fr. Pell in charge there as well. Around that time, he celebrated another sister’s wedding so he continued being in our lives until he moved to Melbourne.

My brother tells the story of the Aquinas College “20 year Reunion” party being crashed by the Archbishop of Sydney. Everyone was happily surprised and someone asked what they should now call him, “Your Eminence” or “Father” or just “George” like they used to. His reply was you “call me whatever is comfortable for you.” That is how it was with us as kids or later as adults. He just wanted you to be comfortable around him. For me he will always be Father and that’s how he signs his letters still today. l am the contact now for mum as she cannot write anymore.

The description of George Pell in Louise Milligan’s book certainly doesn’t fit the George Pell the people from St. Francis Xavier College and Aquinas College knew then and still know today.

The only thing l like from this book is the front cover. As a kid, if that was Fr. Pell standing there in front of you – you were safe and protected.


Gerard Henderson is the author of Santamaria – A Most Unusual Man (MUP 2015).

John Clifton lives in Ballarat, Victoria.