The ignorance of some journalists never seems to surprise. Take, for example, the release last week of the non-redacted report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse covering its case studies in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat and archdiocese of Melbourne.
Sections of both reports had been delayed pending the result of the outcome of the charges laid against Cardinal George Pell for historical child sexual abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and 1997. On April 7, in a unanimous decision, the High Court quashed Pell’s conviction.
Many of Pell’s media critics, who were disappointed with his acquittal, looked forward to the release of the royal commission’s findings, which they expected to be hostile to Pell. They were not disappointed. Nor should they have expected to be, in view of the hostile reception Pell faced during his appearances before the royal commission comprising close to 20 hours — especially from counsel assisting Gail Furness SC.
Immediately after its release, Nine Entertainment’s Peter FitzSimons, a leading Pell antagonist, referred to the report as “a judgment”. No, it wasn’t. A royal commission is not a court of law. Moreover, in this instance, half of its members did not have legal qualifications.
Royal commissions make findings, not judgments. And their burden of proof is far lower than guilt beyond reasonable doubt. It’s closer to the balance of probabilities that prevails in civil cases.
In 1991, well before he became a judge and a royal commissioner, Peter McClellan wrote an article in the Current Issues in Criminal Justice journal in which he stated: “In recent years there has been an increasing trend in government to invoke royal commissions of inquiry to investigate particular problems.”
McClellan continued: “The frequency of such inquiries, and the sensational reporting which they have attracted, has tended to create a belief in some people that this is an appropriate method of handling any matter of public controversy. This is a view expressed by the press.” In 1991, McClellan held the view that “persons should only be convicted after due process in the relevant court”.
It’s a pity that, last week, so many members of the contemporary media dismissed McClellan’s warnings of three decades ago.
Anyone unfamiliar with the case would probably have assumed that Pell was primarily responsible for most of the historical cases of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. And that, if Pell had done his duty, the notorious Catholic pedophiles John Day (1904-78), Gerald Ridsdale and Edward Dowlan would have been arrested and convicted early into their offending. As a result, many of their victims would have been saved.
The fact is that Day’s sexual offending against children was known by Victoria Police in the early 1970s — but it did nothing. Born in 1941, Pell was a junior priest at the time.
The story of Denis Ryan, who was forced out of Victoria Police for investigating Day, is told in the book that he co-wrote with Peter Hoysted titled Unholy Trinity (Allen & Unwin, 2013).
Evidence before the royal commission indicates that Victoria Police was aware of Ridsdale’s criminality around 1975-76. Again, it did nothing. The royal commission found that in 1977 and in 1982, Pell — who was one of a number of consultors to bishop Ronald Mulkearns — was advised that Ridsdale was a pedophile.
There is no written or oral evidence to support this conclusion. In fact, what evidence there is indicates that Pell and his fellow consultors were not advised that Ridsdale was being moved from parish to parish because of pederasty. However, some of those present recall that Mulkearns referred to Ridsdale’s homosexuality, which would have been regarded as scandalous at the time.
Mulkearns was a dictatorial bishop (even for his day) who was secretive and who destroyed documents. The royal commission found that he advised Pell and others of Ridsdale’s crimes. Yet the same royal commission found that the bishop hid this information from many others, including cardinal Edward Clancy.
And then there’s the case of Timothy Green, who told the royal commission that in 1974 he advised Pell that Dowlan was assaulting boys. Pell does not recall this conversation, nor does the surviving witness. Moreover, Green says the whole exchange took place when he had his back to Pell. The royal commission did not believe Pell.
Journalist Paul Bongiorno was a Catholic priest in the Ballarat diocese in the early 1970s. One of Ridsdale’s victims, BPL, told the royal commission that he had informed Bongiorno about Ridsdale. Bongiorno advised in a statement that he had no recollection of any such conversation. The royal commission found that it could not resolve the differing accounts of PBL and Bongiorno. The latter was not called to give evidence, nor was PBL. The royal commission did not disbelieve Bongiorno.
The fact is that Pell was never in charge of a diocese or archdiocese until he was appointed to Melbourne in 1996.
The royal commission downplays the fact Pell, when in a position of authority, was the first leader in the Catholic Church to establish a procedure to tackle clerical pedophilia.
His predecessor, archbishop Frank Little, had covered up the crimes of his clergy. Pell took action some six years before American newspaper The Boston Globe, in its Spotlight series, revealed clerical child abuse in the Boston archdiocese.
Nor did the royal commission give due consideration to the fact, soon after being appointed archbishop, Pell sacked two offending priests, Peter Searson and Wilfred Baker — the former, despite the Vatican’s instructions to the contrary.
Such facts are overlooked or downplayed by the royal commission. Meanwhile Pell is effectively condemned for his explanations, which the royal commission found to be inconceivable, implausible, untenable and so on. These are opinions.
In short, he has been effectively damned by the royal commission for (allegedly) protecting pedophilia in the face of McClellan’s 1991 warning that a person should be convicted only after due process in a relevant court. Pell received no such justice.