George Pell returns to Australia: Some background

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 24 February 2018

After he moved from Australia to Rome in 2014 for a senior role in the Vatican, Cardinal George Pell became reluctant to travel back to Australia. When he was asked (in 2014-2017) to give evidence (about church policies) at Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Pell preferred to appear from Rome by video-link. But in mid-2017 he finally returned to Australia, where police have charged him with "multiple" sexual offences allegedly committed some years ago in the state of Victoria, involving "multiple" complainants.

The Royal Commission's public hearings examined how the Catholic Church authorities in Australia have handled (or mis-handled) the general issue of church-related sex-abuse. At these public hearings, Pell was not cross-examined about any alleged offences of his own.

In addition to the public hearings, the Royal Commission's office could be contacted privately by any member of the public who may report about having been abused by a particular clergy person. This complainant might then be interviewed privately by one of the Commissioners. However, the Royal Commission did NOT investigate these alleged crimes; instead, the alleged victim was given the right to have a private chat with police detectives, to see whether (or not) this alleged victim wants to make a signed statement for the police, outlining the alleged incident. In the state of Victoria, these detectives were from the Sano Taskforce, within the Victoria Police sexual crimes squad.

3 case-studies

In public hearings between 2014 and 2017, the Royal Commission was examining a series of case-studies (that is, examples) about church policies in dealing with sexual abuse. Three of these case-studies happened to be about regions where Pell formerly worked:

  • Ballarat (where Pell was a priest in the 1970s);
  • Melbourne (where Pell was an assistant bishop in 1987-1996 and the archbishop in 1996-2001) and
  • Sydney (archbishop in 2001-2014).

The three case studies were:

  • Case Study 8, held in Sydney, in March 2014 (about how certain matters of clergy sexual abuse were handled in Sydney and suburbs). Pell, who was then the archbishop of Sydney, answered questions for this case study in person. This was just before he departed from Sydney to take up his new role in Rome being in charge of the Vatican's treasury.
  • Case Study 35 in May 2015 (about how clergy sexual abuse was handled in Melbourne and suburbs). For this case study, Pell was questioned in May 2015 by video-link from Rome.
  • Case Study 28 in early 2016 (about how clergy sexual abuse was handled in the diocese of Ballarat, covering the western half of the state of Victoria). Again, Pell appeared by video-link from Rome.

Worldwide attention

Because of Pell's absence from Australia, people attending the Royal Commission's public hearing in Sydney in 2016 were forced to watch the cross-examination of Pell on a large video screen. Some survivors of church sex-abuse, flew from Australia to Rome, so they could be present in the conference room in which Pell was being cross-examined by video-link from Australia. While in Rome, these Australian survivors attracted worldwide attention.

By giving his Royal Commission evidence in Rome (the centre of the Catholic Church), Pell increased the worldwide interest in the topic of clergy sexual abuse.

Questions to Pell from the media

Pell's non-appearance in Australia prompted the Australian media to wonder if any alleged victims had made complaints to Australian civil authorities about any actions allegedly involving George Pell (that is, not about other clergy). As explained earlier in this article, the Royal Commission's role is to examine the general issue of cover-ups, leaving the police to investigate a particular crime.

In February 2016, a journalist from the Melbourne Herald Sun sent some questions to Cardinal George Pell in Rome, seeking to find out if there had been any such complaints about Pell and, if so, whether these complaints are being examined by Victoria Police.

Pell's office responded to the Herald Sun by issuing a written statement, objecting to any such "police investigation". Pell's media statement was issued not only to the Herald Sun but also, simultaneously, to all other media outlets in Australia and around the world.

Pell's diplomatic immunity

The Vatican state, which is a relatively tiny precinct within the Rome metropolis, has the status of a separate government, with the Pope as its monarch (and with Cardinal George Pell as one of the Vatican state's senior cabinet ministers).

As a government official, in the Vatican, Pell was entitled to diplomatic immunity, making it difficult for Australian civil authorities to gain access to him.

Defence lawyers

From early 2016 onwards, Pell's office began consulting Australian lawyers.

Eventually, in October 2016 (after negotiations between the defence lawyers and the Victorian prosecuting authorities), George Pell's lawyers agreed to Pell being interviewed by the Victoria Police in Rome. Three Sano Taskforce detectives flew from Melbourne to Rome to obtain his response to the complaints of the alleged victims.

Robert Richter QC, acting on behalf of Pell, flew from Melbourne to Rome to assist Pell during the police interview process.

Pell in court in 2017-2018

In mid-2017, after further negotiations between Pall's lawyers and the Victorian prosecutors, Pell agreed to return to Australia, so that his legal team could fight the charges. On 26 July 2017, Pell appeared briefly in the Melbourne Magistrates Court, accompanied by Robert Richter QC. This was an administrative procedure in which prosecutors for the state of Victoria officially filed "multiple" charges against Pell, involving "multiple" complainants, regarding sexual offences allegedly committed some years ago during his time in the State of Victoria.

The Magistrates Court did not release (to the public) any details about the number (or kinds) of charges or the number of alleged victims or where (or in what year) the alleged incidents occurred.

During the remainder of 2017 (and in early 2018), the state prosecutors and the defence lawyers appeared in the Magistrates Court again several times for a brief administrative procedure and update. These procedures were chaired by Belinda Wallington, who is the supervising magistrate for the sexual offences list at Melbourne Magistrates Court.

The defence lawyers indicated to the court that George Pell intends to fight the charges.

In March 2018, the Magistrates Court is scheduled to hold a four-weeks preliminary hearing (known as a "committal" hearing), during which the magistrate will hear a preview of all evidence. Pell's lawyers will have the right to cross-examine witnesses. There will be restrictions on media coverage. For example, while any alleged victim is giving evidence (or being cross-examined) in the committal hearing, the courtroom will be closed to the public and the media. Apart from the alleged victim, the only persons present for the complainant's evidence would be the magistrate and the magistrate's clerk plus the accused person, lawyers on both sides and the investigating police officer.

During such a committal hearing, any defence lawyer would oppose each alleged victim and perhaps would seek to prevent the case from going to trial.

At the end of the committal hearing, the magistrate must decide whether to dismiss any (or all) of the charges — or (if there is sufficient evidence) whether to order the accused person to face a criminal trial (on a future date) with a judge and jury in a higher court, the Victorian County Court. At the County Court, if there are still "multiple" charges (involving "multiple" victims), any defence lawyer could apply to have the "multiple" incidents divided into a sequence of separate trials, with a different jury for each trial (this would require a media blackout during such a sequence of juries).

Therefore, it is possible that the whole judicial process for Cardinal George Pell could be a very slow and lengthy one, perhaps lasting for a year or even longer, with restrictions on media coverage.


It is important to remember that the George Pell court case in 2018 is separate from (and different) from Australia's national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse held in 2013-2017. The Royal Commission's public hearings examined some examples of how some religious organisations have handled (or mis-handled) the general problem of child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission's public hearings did not discuss any specific allegation which could come before a criminal court. If any alleged victims notified the Royal Commission privately about any alleged crime, these alleged victims were invited to discuss their allegation privately with child-protection police (for example, the Sano Taskforce of the Victoria Police sexual crimes squad).