Allegations against Cardinal Pell: 5 things to consider

On Wednesday, ABC’s 7.30 Report dedicated a full episode to airing allegations of indecent assault against Cardinal George Pell.  The report gave slightly more detail to newspaper articles from earlier this year which claimed that Cardinal Pell was being investigated by Victoria Police.

There were five allegations made in total. The first two alleged incidents occurred in the late 1970s at a swimming pool in Ballarat and a singular incident in the mid 1980s in Torquay.  The three people making these accusations all appeared on the program.  Presenter Louise Milligan also made reference to allegations of the abuse of two choir boys during the 1990s while Cardinal Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne, but no detail about these claims was provided.

In this piece, I would like to make five quick observations about the allegations and the report, including some questions which need to be asked about the accusations being made. 

Isn’t it wrong to be questioning the claims of alleged victims?

The Royal Commission has taught us that one of the characteristic responses to allegations of child abuse were that children were not believed when they spoke up about abuse.  We are encouraged to believe those making complaints so that the fear of not being believed is not an impediment to speaking up.

But there is a difference in believing a person has been abused and accepting every detail they provide.  Questioning claims does not amount to accusing those making them of being intentionally untruthful.  It is just that, at a distance of 30 or 40 years and after an experience of trauma, a person’s recall is often not perfect.  This is not to imply bad faith on their part, it is just an understanding of human nature.

It is possible that with the intense media focus on Cardinal Pell in relation to these issues, people who have been abused may associate him with their pain, whether or not he contributed to it.  We have seen this already in the Royal Commission.  A number of people have told the Commission that they reported their abuse to Cardinal Pell, only for the evidence to show that this was impossible

If we are committed to the pursuit of truth, then it is acceptable and even essential, that we ask some questions about claims being presented by the media.

The nature of the accusations

1978-1979 allegations

The two men who appeared on the program alleged that, while playing a game in the local swimming pool where “three or four” boys would jump on Cardinal Pell’s shoulders and he would throw them off and into the water, he would grab their bottom or genitals as he threw them.  One even alleged that the Cardinal managed to manouver his hands under the water to molest him under his bathers.

One complainant described Cardinal Pell as a very strong and scary man, and the other said students “all had to look up to him,” needing to brush their hair and tuck themselves in whenever he came to the school.  It is curious that the students would have had much to do with then- Father Pell, given that between 1974 and 1984, he was the full-time director of the Aquinas campus of the Institute of Catholic Education, a position which would have kept him at the college campus during school hours on most days.

It is interesting that students felt so comfortable frolicking in the local swimming pool with a man who apparently inspired so much fear in them. 

1986-1987 allegation

Torquay Surf Life Saving Club member Les Tyack told the 7.30 Report (and The Project the following night) that he walked into the Torquay Surf Life Saving Club to see then- Father George Pell standing naked in front of three young boys, a position in which he remained for 5-10 minutes.  Mr Tyack said he walked up to Father Pell and said, “George, I know what you're up to.  Get dressed, p*ss off out of this club and don’t come back.  If I see you back in this club again, I'll call the police.”

It’s interesting that Mr Tyack knew who Father Pell was, and felt sufficiently familiar with him to address him by his first name, despite Cardinal Pell never being based at or even near Torquay.  From 1974 to 1984, Father Pell was based in Ballarat, more than 100km from Torquay.  Following this, he was briefly at Bungaree, which was a similar distance from Torquay and then served as the seminary rector in Werribee, which is about 75km from Torquay. 

1996-2001 allegations

The program also made scant reference to allegations of abuse from two teenage choir boys at St. Patrick's Cathedral while Cardinal Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne.  No further detail was given and no alleged victims appeared on the program.  While it is difficult to consider such a vague report, it is worth noting that there is a significant amount of formality when it comes to interactions an Archbishop and considering how often, if at all, an Archbishop would have occasion to closely privately connect with individual members of the Cathedral choir. 

The reason for going public

The evening after the allegations were aired, the 7.30 Report had a follow up story.  In part, the lawyer for one of the complainants provided the reasons for going to the media.  She said:

There will be decisions made by the OPP [Office of Public Prosecutions] that we're going to sever for the trials. Now this is a decision that often comes from pressure from defence counsel and they say, "Well why should my client be prejudiced by someone else's case and story? That it needs to be seen by a jury or a judge with fresh eyes and so this is what I'm insisting on." And so the OPP have made some very poor decisions about doing just that, which is severing trials, and you see things fall over.

Here’s the problem with that reasoning.  Section 194 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2009 (Vic) contains a presumption in favour of a joint trial for sexual offences, meaning a joint trial is the default position and is only changed if a judge was believed that it was interests of justice to conduct them separately.  In airing the allegations, the ABC took this decision out of the hands of the court and into their own.  According to a statement from the ABC following the airing of the program, they did this because of Cardinal Pell’s fame.  The statement read, in part: “There is a clear public interest case for reporting on this matter.  Cardinal George Pell is a significant public figure.” 

In popular imagery, Lady Justice is depicted wearing a blindfold which is meant to represent the objectivity of the law, an indication that it is blind to wealth and identity.   A person’s fame should not be a factor in the pursuit of justice.  It is only a factor in the pursuit of television ratings.  No one is served when a member of the community is denied due process because of who they are.

Responses from Cardinal Pell and Pope Francis

Cardinal Pell responded swiftly, refuting all allegations made against him.  He also spoke with charity about his accusers, saying: "I bear no ill will and have no desire to cause them harm but what they say about me is not true."

You can read his full statement here.

Pope Francis was also asked about the allegations on his return flight from World Youth Day in Krakow.  He said that one mustn’t judge before justice judges, and that he would speak only after justice speaks.  He told the questioner that we shouldn’t make judgments based on media trial or gossip.

You can read his full remarks here.

What next?

The final question to ask is: “What’s next for the allegations against the Cardinal?”  According to the ABC, these men approached the police in July last year, meaning that the investigation has been occurring for at least a year.  The police have not even seen fit to interview the Cardinal, even though he indicated his willingness to cooperate when the Herald Sun first raised these allegations in February.  The Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police, Graham Ashton, said in June that it had not been put to him as necessary that the Cardinal be interviewed.

Before anything is to come of these allegations, the Cardinal would need to be interviewed and the police, in consultation with the Office of Public Prosecutions, would need to determine that there was sufficient evidence for charges to be laid.  So it seems we are a fair way off at this point.

For all involved, it would be good if this matter was concluded quickly.  I’m sure those making the claims would like to see a resolution to their complaints.  And it is unfair to the Cardinal for these allegations to have been aired so publicly and without due process being followed, because it denies him the ability to respond through the appropriate channels.

Monica Doumit, Catholic Talk editor

Saturday, 30 July 2016 17:16 Written by 


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.