Catholic Church received a sex-abuse allegation against George Pell (and there is no mention of exoneration)

In October 2002, the Catholic Church in Australia paid a senior barrister, Mr Alex Southwell QC, to examne an allegation that, about forty years earlier, a trainee priest named George had sexually abused a twelve-year-old altar boy at a holiday camp for young boys in tents on Phillip Island, south-east of Melbourne. According to Mr Southwell's report, the former altar boy (referred to in this article as "C", for Complainant) has alleged that, on several occasions, the trainee priest George thrust his hand down the inside of C's pants and got "a good handful" of the boy's penis and testicles; and C also alleged that, on other occasions, George tried to guide C's hand into the front of George's pants. In the year 2000, when C was aged 50, he discovered (from television news footage) that the trainee priest George had risen to become the archbishop of Melbourne. C was shocked — "he did not think it right that someone who had behaved indecently towards children should lead the church," the Southwell report says. So, beginning in 2000, wanted to alert the church authorities. C emphasised that he was not seeking compensation; he merely wanted the church authorities to note the alleged incidents. Mr Southwell confirmed that George Pell was indeed present at the altar boys' camp. During Mr Southwell's inquiry, George Pell contested the sexual-abuse allegation. After the inquiry, Mr Southwell's official report stated that C "appeared to speak honestly from an actual recollection".

The following account is taken from the Southwell report.

The report says that, each January in the early 1960s, this camp on Phillip Island was attended by more than 40 boys from the Braybrook parish. [This parish, nowadays known as the Maidstone-Braybrook parish, was in a low socio-economic area in Melbourne's west.] In the early 1960s, George Pell (then aged about 20) was among a group of trainee priests from the church's Corpus Christi seminary in Melbourne who attended the camp each year to spend time with the boys.

Here is Mr Southwell's summary of the allegations by C:

'At the camp, during some form of activity in a tent (such as pillow fighting or wrestling), the respondent [George], while facing the complainant, put his hand down the inside of the complainant's pants and got "a good handful" of his penis and testicles. There were other altar boys in the tent at the time, who were participating in the other playful activities. The complainant was shocked, since before that incident he had regarded the respondent as "a fun person, a gentle person, a kind person, he was a terrific bloke". On each of the few occasions this occurred, the complainant pulled the respondent's hand away.

'On two occasions, in a tent, the respondent took the complainant's hand, and guided it down the front of and inside the respondent's pants; the complainant pulled his hand away without having touched the respondent's genitals.

'In another incident, which "is not as clear as the other episodes", they were in the water, jumping the waves, when from one side the respondent put his hand down and inside the complainant's bathers and touched his genitals.

'On another occasion, during a walk away from the camp at night, they were walking in Indian file when the respondent grabbed the complainant from behind and put his hand down and inside of the complainant's pants.'

C said that he was not the only boy at the camp who was abused by George. C said that he witnessed a friend of his (referred to as "A") being molested by "big George". C told George to "fuck off". A and C later protested by lighting a glass fire near the camp. A died in 1985, and therefore he could not be questioned by the Southwell inquiry.

Another former altar boy (labelled as "H") told the inquiry that, at the Phillip Island camp, he was warned by both C and A to stay away from Big George.

Beginning in his teens, C's life was disrupted. He developed a problem with alcohol and gambling. In his early twenties he got into trouble with the law, serving time in jail for alcohol-related offences. He eventually overcame those problems and became a respectable citizen, acting as a volunteer in community groups to help vulnerable people who are in need.

In about 1975 (aged about 25), C told his then wife about having been molested by the trainee priest George. Mrs C gave evidence to the Southwell inquiry confirming this. Eventually C also told his children about the abuse.

In 2000, when C recognised Archbishop George Pell as the former trainee priest, C decided that the church should be informed about this. So, in 2000 he told his local parish priest [a prominent figure in Melbourne] about the alleged sexual abuse.  Two years later, C decided to submit his complaint to the church's National Committee for Professional Standards. At  first, the NCPS procrastinated in handling this complaint but eventually, fearing adverse publicity, the NCPS took the precaution of paying Mr Alec Southwell QC to conduct a church inquiry into the allegation. The inquiry demanded a very high standard of proof (much higher than the church usually requires when assessing a complaint about clergy sex abuse).

It is not known how much the Catholic Church authorities paid Mr Southwell, in total, for doing this job for them but members of the legal profession know how much a QC would be paid per day.

The church authorities paid Mr M. Tovey Q.C. to appear for the former altar boy and Mr J. Sher Q.C. to appear for George Pell.

The church's hearing was held behind closed doors for five days in the boardroom of Rydge's Hotel in Melbourne in September-October 2002.

In his final report, Mr Southwell noted that "I must bear in mind that serious allegations are involved, and that an adverse finding [against Archbishop Pell] would in all probability have grave, indeed devastating, consequences for the respondent [Archbishop Pell]."

Mr Southwell said that criticisms of the complainant by Archbishop Pell's lawyer "do not persuade me that he [the complainant] is a liar."

"I did not form a positively adverse view of him [the complainant] as a witness."

Mr Southwell returned a balanced finding. Evidently, it was one man's word against another man's word. The Southwell report contains no mention of George Pell being exonerated.

Here are main points of the Southwell report, taken from the church website in October 2002 while the document was on that website:-

REPORT OF AN INQUIRY INTO AN ALLEGATION OF SEXUAL ABUSE AGAINST ARCHBISHOP GEORGE PELL

Commissioner: The Honourable A.J. Southwell Q.C.

INTRODUCTION

The National Committee for Professional Standards (N.C.P.S.) is a body set up by the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference to receive inter alia, complaints of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. I have been appointed as Commissioner by Archbishop Phillip Wilson and Brother Michael Hill (Chairpersons of N.C.P.S. - "the appointors") to inquire into an allegation by "C" ("the complainant") that at Phillip Island, in 1961, he was on several occasions sexually abused by George Pell, now the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney ("the respondent").

It is as well to set out part of para 2 of the Terms of Reference which requires me to "enquire into and report upon the Complaint in accordance with the following Terms of Reference: The Commissioner shall make such enquiries and hold such hearings as he considers are necessary and appropriate in order for him to be satisfied as to whether or not the complaint has been established ...

In the event a hearing was conducted on 30 September, 1, 2, 3 and 4 October 2002. . .

Early in the hearing it became apparent that there was considerable doubt whether the alleged molestation of the complainant took place at a camp in 1961 or 1962. As will be seen, the complainant, who stated his belief that he went to only one camp (and that belief was much in issue) fixed the date by reason of the fact that a fire occurred nearby during the camp in question, and enquiries of the Country Fire Authority ("C.F.A.") showed that they had attended a fire in the vicinity on 13th January 1961 (during the 1961 camp); accordingly, the complainant fixed that as the date of the relevant camp. However, extraordinarily enough, there was also a fire nearby at the camp of 1962; this information was gleaned from Christus Rex, the monthly newsletter of Braybrook parish; included in the article is the information that both the complainant and the respondent were at that camp. To ensure that the merits of the complaint could be properly investigated, I sought, and in due course obtained, an amendment to the Terms of Reference so that after the expression "in 1961" was added "or 1962".

BACKGROUND OF THE COMPLAINT

The complainant was born on *** 1949. His second primary school was Christ the King in Braybrook. His mother was a strict and devout Catholic and was keen for the complainant to follow that path. He became an altar boy at the church.

At that time an agency of the Catholic Church conducted a holiday camp during the summer at Phillip Island. In January 1961 and 1962, altar boys from the Braybrook church attended, probably 42 of them in 1961, and somewhat more in 1962. The camps were supervised by Father Donovan, assisted in 1961 by 4 seminarians from Corpus Christi College, Werribee, and about 6 in 1962. The respondent was present on each occasion, although probably not for the whole of the week in 1961. There was a bunkhouse in which some of the younger boys and some seminarians slept, the remainder sleeping in army style tents, which are depicted in photographs…

The complainant went to Grade 6 at the primary school, and then went to *** Technical School, he thinks in 1961…

THE COMPLAINT

The details of the complaint are as follows: at the camp, during some form of activity in a tent (such as pillow fighting or wrestling), the respondent, while facing the complainant, put his hand down the inside of the complainant's pants and got "a good handful" of his penis and testicles. There were other altar boys in the tent at the time, who were participating in the other playful activities. The complainant was shocked, since before that incident he had regarded the respondent as "a fun person, a gentle person, a kind person, he was a terrific bloke". On each of the few occasions this occurred, the complainant pulled the respondent's hand away. On two occasions, in a tent, the respondent took the complainant's hand, and guided it down the front of and inside the respondent's pants; the complainant pulled his hand away without having touched the respondent's genitals. In another incident, which "is not as clear as the other episodes", they were in the water, jumping the waves, when from one side the respondent put his hand down and inside the complainant's bathers and touched his genitals.

On another occasion, during a walk away from the camp at night, they were walking in Indian file when the respondent grabbed the complainant from behind and put his hand down and inside of the complainant's pants.

The complainant said that on each occasion in the tent, other boys were present, but the respondent so positioned himself that they may well have not been in a position to have seen it.

I should interpolate that other evidence showed that it would occasion no surprise that a seminarian would be in a tent occupied by the boys - it could be in fun, or perhaps to restore order or otherwise settle the boys down.

The complainant agreed that he then made no complaint to any person other than his friend "A" (who died in 1985).

The complainant said that on one occasion he saw the respondent similarly molest "A", who turned away and told the respondent to "fuck off".

The complainant said that apart from the physical opposition, he did not remonstrate with the respondent; indeed he said that the only conversation with the respondent that he could actually recall was of the respondent telling him (and, I gather, possibly others) that he had played football in the ruck with Richmond reserves. The respondent denied having said that; he had indeed signed to play with Richmond in his final school year, but had not in fact trained or played with Richmond. V.F.L. (now A.F.L.) records have no trace of the respondent having so played.

The complainant (and other witnesses, including adults) said that among the boys the respondent was known as "big George", understandably enough. The respondent was not so addressed to his face, and said he was unaware of the nickname.

The respondent was born on 8 June 1941; he ended schooling as captain of St. Patrick's College in 1959; he studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1966; after various positions, he was in 1987, at the age of about 46, appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the Melbourne Archdiocese; among other posts he was a member of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1990 to 2000; in 1996 he was appointed Archbishop of Melbourne; on 26 March 2001 his appointment as Archbishop of Sydney was announced and he was installed as Archbishop on 10 May 2001…

The respondent wholly denied every allegation of having touched the complainant or "A”…

The complainant said that he used to discuss the molestation with "A"; that one day "A" ran away from the camp; the complainant found him, and "A" said he could not stand any further molestation; "A" had a box of matches, and said he was "going to burn the place down"; they lit a fire which became a grass fire out of control but which was brought under control by the C.F.A. At the hearing it was proven that in fact the C.F.A. extinguished a grass fire in that area on 13th January 1961.

The complainant said that in about 1975 he had told his then wife (from whom he has been separated for some years) and much later his children, of the molestation; and that one night in about May 2000 he was watching television, when news came on concerning the respondent; that he immediately recognised his molester - "the same face and the same loping walk"; he was shocked - he did not think it right that someone who had acted as the respondent had should lead the Church…

In about 2000, after attending with a friend, "D", a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, at which sexual abuse was discussed, he told "D" of the molestation, and was advised by him to consult his parish priest.

In May this year [2002] he decided to make a formal complaint; he discussed it with his friend, Father "F", the parish priest at *** and he thereafter was referred to the N.C.P.S., where he was interviewed by "G", the executive director…

THE NATURE OF THE PROCEEDINGS

In his final address, although not specifically abandoning his earlier concession that the inquiry was "not bound by the rules of evidence," Mr. Sher submitted that the question of admissibility should be considered as if the inquiry was a proceeding "analogous to a criminal trial". He underlined the obvious fact that "an adverse finding would be nothing short of disastrous for (the respondent) and the Church". . .

THE STANDARD OF PROOF

Although this is not a criminal proceeding requiring proof beyond reasonable doubt, I must bear in mind that serious allegations are involved, and that an adverse finding would in all probability have grave, indeed devastating, consequences for the respondent. . .

EVIDENCE PUT IN SUPPORT OF COMPLAINT

. . ."H", a patently honest witness, said that he left Christ the King school at the end of 1960, and the 1961 camp was the last he attended. "A", the complainant and the respondent were among those present. He remembers various frolicking activities, and a night walk where the boys were spread out.

However, no-one at the inquiry suggested that the references in the Christus Rex parish newsletter of February 1962 were other than accurate, and the lengthy note of the 1962 camp included "H"'s name among the altar boys present. It follows that his honest recollection as to the date of his last camp is in all probability mistaken, a fact which underlines the great difficulty of fact finding in relation to incidents occurring 40 years ago.

He said he had a clear recollection of "A", who, although about seven months younger, "always tended to look after me a bit and he came up to me and he said to me one day, "just watch out for Big George", and thereafter "I didn't get too close to him". . .

DELAY IN COMPLAINING

As has been stated, the complainant first complained to anybody in the Church when he spoke to Father "F"; the latter arranged the meeting with "G", which took place on 11 June 2002. Accordingly the first formal complaint was made more than 40 years after the event, and it follows that the respondent thereafter first heard of it.

Common sense and high legal authority tell us of the unfairness which may arise from long delay, because of the difficulty in defending such a stale complaint. . .

Accordingly I accept as correct (as do the other counsel in this inquiry) the submission of Mr. Sher that I should give myself a warning along the lines of what would be required in a criminal trial. To say that is not to change my view that the strict rules of a criminal trial do not apply, but to acknowledge that common fairness demands that to keep such a warning in mind.

THE EVIDENCE OF COMPLAINT

The first complaint was said to have been made to Mrs. "C", the wife of the complainant, in about 1975, that is, some 14 years after the incident. She separated from the complainant about 10 years ago; they see each other occasionally (she has lived in *** for some time) in relation principally to visits by or matters concerning their off-spring.

Mrs. "C" said that in about 1975 or 1976 the complainant told her that when he was an altar boy at a camp at Phillip Island he had been interfered with by a "big bastard called George". He said that "A" was involved in it".

She had a clear recollection of the conversation; she was shocked by it; she could not recall how the subject first arose, or the conversation immediately preceding the statement. After that, the matter was "swept under the carpet" and was not further discussed until much more recent times.

Although Mr. Sher offered a number of criticisms of her evidence as to interest and recollection ("how could she remember a common name like "George" after all those years"), as I indicated during the final address of Mr. Sher, I regarded her as impressive witness, who had a clear recollection of a startling statement.

As stated, Mr. Sher objected to the evidence; the principal thrust of the submission was that upon the authorities, evidence of a complaint could not be admitted unless it was made at the first opportunity - R. v. Freeman [1980] V.R.I.

It is perhaps a moot point whether the evidence would have been admissible upon a criminal trial to rebut a suggestion of recent invention. It was the complainant's version that, although he always knew his molester as "big George", it was not until he saw the respondent on television in the year 2000 that he identified the respondent as "big George". (There can be no doubt that "big George" was the respondent). . .

As to motive, it should be noted that extensive enquiries made on behalf of the respondent have unearthed no evidence of any other matter or incident which might have aroused spite or malice on the part of the complainant towards either the respondent or the Church. On the other hand, the respondent has had a strong motive to push memory (if there ever was memory) of these fleeting incidents by a 19 year old into the recesses of the mind, from which there could be no recall.

CREDIBILITY OF THE COMPLAINANT

The complainant's credibility was subjected to a forceful attack. By the age of about 20 years, the complainant had an alcohol problem; at some later stage, he had become an alcoholic; in 1984 his wife took him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but he had not been drinking then for about 18 months. He has attended such meetings intermittently ever since; it appears that he has not had any problem with alcohol since 1979.

The complainant has been before the court on many occasions, resulting in 39 convictions from about 20 court appearances. Most of the convictions involved drink-driving or assaults, between 1969 (when he was aged 20 years) and 1975…

Mrs. "C" said that in about July 2000 the complainant rang her expressing astonishment that he had just recognised his molester as "George Pell". She did not know who that was so she asked, and was told by the complainant that "he is an Archbishop".

She fixed the date, first, by believing it was more than two years ago and secondly, by the fact that she had then just started a new job, and that was in July 2000, a job about which she was "bit agitated". I have earlier said that I accept Mrs. "C" as an honest witness, and I believe that she is probably correct in fixing the date of the relevant conversation.

"D" has been a friend of the complainant for over 20 years; they met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting; they meet every few months, perhaps at a meeting, perhaps for dinner or coffee. In June or July 2000, after an A.A. meeting, they went to Williamstown cafe for coffee, where the complainant told him that at a camp years ago George Pell had molested him (he described the act complained of); "D" suggested the complainant should seek counselling from his parish priest...

The other criticisms of the complainant's credit made by Mr. Sher do not persuade me that he is a liar…

I did not form a positively adverse view of him as a witness

I accept as correct the submission of Mr. Tovey that the complainant, when giving evidence of molesting, gave the impression that he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection.

However, the respondent, also, gave me the impression that he was speaking the truth.

CONCLUSION

In the end, and notwithstanding that impression of the complainant, bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defence occasioned by the very long delay, some valid criticism of the complainant's credibility, the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent, I find I am not "satisfied that the complaint has been established", to quote the words of the principal term of reference.

I so advise the appointors.

Hon. A.J. Southwell Q.C.

The above main points from Mr Southwell’s report were downloaded in October 2002 from the website of the Catholic Church at: http://www.catholic.org.au/statements/pell_judgement.htm

Later comments

  • Following is a transcript from the ABC Radio National, “Religion Report”, 18 December 2002, presented by Stephen Crittenden, summarising some of the events of 2002:-

Stephen Crittenden: …As this is the last episode in the Religion Report for 2002, we’re looking back over what has been a very busy year in the world of religious current affairs – tying up some loose ends, returning to some major stories, and even following up on a few stories that we haven’t previously had time for …

Stephen Crittenden: It was also an annus horribilis for Sydney’s Archbishop George Pell. First, ambushed by 60 Minutes over allegations that he attempted to bribe a victim of clerical sexual abuse to keep quiet; then the subject of a complaint of a sexual advance at an altar boy camp forty years ago. Those allegations led to Dr Pell standing aside while an inquiry was conducted by a retired Victorian Supreme Court judge, Alex Southwell QC. Well as we know, following the release of Mr Southwell’s report, Archbishop Pell returned to office, but he declined to be interviewed on this program. As a result, we were unable to ask how he could claim to have been exonerated, when the leading newspaper in the city where he’s the Archbishop says he has not been. Here’s the conclusion of the Sydney Morning Herald editorial of Wednesday, October 16.

Reader: Mr Southwell’s conclusion is exquisitely balanced. He accepts “that the complainant, when giving evidence of molesting, gave the impression that he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection”. However, he says Dr Pell “also gave me the impression he was speaking the truth”. A significant part of Mr Southwell’s report concerns the standard of proof; because he considered what was alleged against Dr Pell as serious, he was inclined to apply a strict burden, akin to the “beyond reasonable doubt” of criminal proceedings. That helped Dr Pell. It also made Mr Southwell’s careful conclusion – that he could not be “satisfied that the complaint has been established” – rather less than a complete exoneration.

Stephen Crittenden: In other words, Mr Southwell’s verdict seems to have an affinity with the Scottish verdict of “case not proven”…

  • The Southwell inquiry is also discussed in a book by David Marr (The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell), published by Black Inc (an imprint of Schwarz Publishing Pty Ltd), Melbourne, in 2013 and in an enlarged second edition in 2014. This discussion is on pages 11-12  and  70-72 in the 2013 edition and on pages 23-24 and 125-130 in the 2014 edition.