I have had two encounters of the personal kind with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, neither of which was satisfactory.
The first occurred on May 6, 2014, when I was walking to my Sydney office on Phillip Street. It was early in the morning and I was surprised to see former ABC Radio National presenter, producer and journalist Stephen Crittenden on the corner of Phillip and Bent streets.
Crittenden was dressed in a fine suit, well-pressed shirt and tasteful tie. I asked him how it came to pass that a one-time left-wing ABC journalist looked so CBDish so early in the morning. Crittenden replied that he had been appointed to a senior bureaucratic position at the royal commission based in nearby Governor Macquarie Tower.
At the time, it was known that the royal commission appeared to be taking a special interest in George Pell relating to his time as a priest in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat in the 1970s and early 80s, as auxiliary bishop in Melbourne in the late 80s and early 90s, as archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001 and archbishop of Sydney before his appointment to the Vatican in February 2014.
There had been several pedophile priests active in both areas of Victoria — particularly Gerald Ridsdale in western Victoria and Peter Searson in Melbourne.
I had followed Crittenden’s journalism at the ABC and happened to know that he was a vehement critic of theological conservatives in the Catholic Church, such as cleric Pell, layman BA Santamaria and more besides.
In November 2002, the Sydney Institute invited Tess Livingstone to discuss her bookGeorge Pell: Defender of the Faith Down Under. It was decided to “balance” the discussion by asking Crittenden to present an alternative view at the same time. He readily accepted.
Crittenden’s hostility towards the (then) Catholic archbishop of Sydney was evident to anyone who heard or read his speech. So it was surprising to learn some years later that a Pell critic such as Crittenden had been appointed to a senior position at the royal commission. It would have been a bit like appointing Andrew Bolt to a senior management position at the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption.
Move forward to this year. On February 16, I was one of four asked by ABC TV’s7.30 to make a comment on Pell’s appearances before the royal commission. The others were Amanda Vanstone, David Ridsdale and Peter Fox. The latter two are Pell critics.
The ABC ran a couple of comments I made in a prerecorded interview. One was that there “will be three appearances” for Pell “at the royal commission and one before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry; no one has been asked to make those kind of appearances”. I added that “no one has produced any evidence that Cardinal Pell acted in any way that was unlawful or improper”.
The comment was accurate then. And it is accurate today. It occurred in a balanced report in which Vanstone and I were broadly supportive of Pell while both Ridsdale and Fox were highly critical. But Philip Reed, the royal commission’s chief executive, was none too happy with my appearance on 7.30.
On the morning of February 19, Reed emailed, alleging that I had made “an error” on7.30. He sent a copy of his email to the ABC in an attempt to have the program put a correction to air that evening. I replied to Reed before lunch, sending a copy to the ABC, and there the matter rested.
Reed objected to my claim that no one else had been asked to make the number of appearances that Pell had. He maintained that Anglican Archbishop Phillip Aspinall had made four appearances and former Anglican archbishop Peter Hollingworth two appearances. In fact, Aspinall appeared on three occasions although on one of these occasions he made a second appearance in order to clarify evidence he had given
earlier. Reed’s intervention was a fudge. At the time of my 7.30 appearance, Pell had given evidence twice to the royal commission with a further appearance to follow via video link from Rome. There was also his evidence to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, which is available to the royal commission.
The facts speak for themselves. As of today, Pell’s testimony to the royal commission totals 554 pages. The comparable totals for Aspinall are 158 pages and Hollingworth 96 pages. In other words, Pell has given evidence to the royal commission more than twice the length of Aspinall and Hollingworth combined.
In my view, Reed’s intervention in this debate by means of private correspondence was unprofessional. Moreover, on three occasions, Reed has declined to answer my query as to whether he has rebuked any other commentator who has made comments on the royal commission. He also has refused to advise whether he has attempted to correct an error made by Gail Furness SC, the counsel assisting the royal commission. This howler was documented in my column of March 12.
Furness’s evident hostility to Pell during the royal commission’s hearing has been criticised by professor Kenneth Wiltshire. Professor Frank Brennan has criticised royal commissioner Peter McClellan’s finding that Pell “did not act fairly from a Christian point of view” towards a victim seeking financial compensation. Neither Wiltshire nor Brennan are traditional supporters of Pell.
McClellan’s own hostility to Pell has been evident on occasions during the cardinal’s many hours of testimony. Also, the royal commission declined to question David Ridsdale (one of Pell’s chief critics) on Ridsdale’s pedophile conviction in 1995 — revealed in February by The Australian.
The royal commission’s behaviour raises issues of fairness.