A couple of weeks ago, Victoria Police confirmed that three of its members travelled to Rome to interview Cardinal George Pell, who volunteered to be interviewed about historical allegations of sexual assault made against him. Cardinal Pell’s office confirmed the interview; both Victoria Police and the Cardinal’s office declined to comment further.
The limited information available to the media was in stark (and welcome) contrast to what occurred earlier this year, when ABC’s 7.30 devoted two episodes to airing allegations against the Cardinal which had been the subject of leaks.
At that time, Cardinal Pell “emphatically and unequivocally” rejected any allegations of sexual abuse against him and he repeated that rejection following the interview with Victoria Police.
Hopefully, this recent development will finally lead to a resolution of these allegations. In an environment where it is claimed that a “Catholic Mafia” within the police force thwarts any investigation of accusations against clergy, it was prudent for Victoria Police to interview the Cardinal lest they be accused of conducting something less than a thorough investigation.
The interview hopefully also gave Cardinal Pell the opportunity to hear and respond to the allegations made against him, rather than learning of them via a sensationalised media report with no appropriate avenue to provide a defence.
This confirmation from Victoria Police was not the only story featuring the Cardinal which has made headlines recently.
Last week, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released the submissions made by Counsel Assisting the Commission and others in relation to the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Diocese of Ballarat.
The submissions which made reference to Cardinal Pell attracted the interest of the media and were reported widely. The submissions are lengthy so I won’t deal with them comprehensively here, but I do want to focus on a few key aspects.
The first and most important point is that these are submissions, not findings. They are arguments made by lawyers which the Commission will consider alongside arguments made by other lawyers, so the importance of the submissions should not be exaggerated.
Case Study 28 looked at the Diocese of Ballarat and, of particular relevance to Cardinal Pell, the offending by Christian Brother Edward Dowlan and Father Gerald Ridsdale.
In relation to Dowlan, Counsel Assisting submitted that between 1973 and 1975, then-Father Pell “was told by at least one student and one or two priests about Dowlan’s infractions of a sexual nature with minors.”
This argument was to be expected; during his evidence, Cardinal Pell told the Commission that he recalls a student had approached him and said that Dowlan was “misbehaving with boys.”
At the time, Cardinal Pell spoke to the school chaplain, who assured him that the Brothers knew, and were doing something about it, and that Dowlan was moved at the end of the year. Cardinal Pell did not know Dowlan was sent to another school and continued offending, and admitted that he should have done more.
Despite the attention over this aspect of the submission from Counsel Assisting, it really did no more than accept the evidence already provided by the Cardinal.
In relation to Ridsdale, the submissions from Counsel Assisting considered two of the key accusations against Cardinal Pell, being that he joked about Ridsdale’s offending to another priest and attempted to bribe David Ridsdale, were not sufficiently made out.
The key negative submission made by Counsel against Cardinal Pell relates to a meeting of the College of Consultors in September 1982, where the minutes recorded that it had “become necessary” for Ridsdale to move from his parish at Mortlake.
Counsel based its submission that Cardinal Pell would have known about Ridsdale’s offending on four factors: that he knew of allegations of sexual abuse against other clergy (so the issue was on his radar); that he knew Ridsdale used to take groups of boys away on overnight camps; that there were rumours of Ridsdale’s offending in various parishes where Ridsdale had served (but Cardinal Pell had not) and that there was no reason for Bishop Mulkearns to have withheld the information from him.
In other words, the submissions were not based on evidence of anything Cardinal Pell was told about Ridsdale, but rather on what he was expected to know based on his knowledge of other events.
Case Study 35 looked at the Archdiocese of Melbourne and in particular, the case of Father Peter Searson, the parish priest of Holy Family, Doveton, where a number of complaints of misconduct, including but not limited to sexual misconduct, were made against him. During part of Searson’s tenure, Cardinal Pell was auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne, and twice received a delegation of concerned parents and teachers from Doveton to discuss Searson’s behaviour.
Cardinal Pell’s evidence to the Commission was that during these meetings, and in the briefings conducted by Catholic Education Office staff beforehand, he was not told of the allegations of sexual misconduct.
In its submissions, Counsel proposed that Cardinal Pell’s evidence that he was deceived by CEO staff be rejected, and that the Commission should instead accept the evidence of CEO officers who gave evidence that they had no reason to deceive the Cardinal or protect Searson.
What is curious about this is that of the four CEO officers sought out by the Commission to give oral evidence, none were present at the meeting or even aware that it had occurred, none ever spoke to Cardinal Pell about Searson, nor were they aware of any of their colleagues doing so, one had never met Cardinal Pell and one was not working at the CEO at the time the meeting occurred.
How Counsel Assisting could suggest that evidence of people with no knowledge of the relevant events could be preferred is unclear.
Of the additional three people who were present at the meeting and provided written statements to the Royal Commission, none gave evidence that Cardinal Pell was told of sexual misconduct, while the staff union representative said he recalled the teachers told Cardinal Pell that Searson should be given a second chance.
As a side note, the submissions from the Australian Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council specifically supported these submissions from Counsel Assisting, that is, that the Commission should prefer the evidence of the CEO staff over that of Cardinal Pell.
It is disappointing that these submissions were made given counsel for the TJHC did not cross-examine the Cardinal over matters relating to Searson and the CEO during the four-day hearing. If the TJHC was planning on proposing that the Commission reject parts of the Cardinal’s evidence, then one would think they would have foreshadowed this during his testimony.
Notably, there was no mention in the submissions of Counsel Assisting that Cardinal Pell acted promptly to remove Searson from ministry after he became Archbishop of Melbourne and was empowered to do so.
Within his first nine months as Archbishop, Cardinal Pell created the Melbourne Response, had the allegations against Searson investigated and had his faculties removed. This was despite no charges relating to child sexual abuse ever being laid against Searson.
In terms of an “institutional response to child sexual abuse,” Cardinal Pell’s swift action against Searson should be commended, but it is unlikely that will happen given the submissions from Counsel Assisting failed to recognise this.