George Pell returns to Australia: Some background

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 18 April 2018

Between 2012 and 2016, Cardinal George Pell was among numerous community leaders who were interviewed by the Australian government's Royal Commission, which was holding public hearings about the general issue of child sexual abuse in organisations such as churches. Pell claimed that, earlier in his career, he had known very little about clergy child-sexual abuse ("only rumours") and, furthermore, that he personally finds such abuse "abhorrent". Pell's claims are disputed by a number of persons who have spoken (separately) to police, each claiming to be a victim of sexual abuse allegedly committed by George Pell, years ago, during their childhood. Meanwhile, in 2014, Pell moved from Australia to Rome to take up a senior role in the Vatican. He became reluctant to re-visit Australia but in mid-2017 he finally agreed to return to Australia, where police charged him with "multiple" sexual offences allegedly committed some years ago in the state of Victoria, involving "multiple" complainants. Pell denies these charges. In Melbourne in March 2018, a magistrate held a four-weeks preliminary hearing to assess the evidence. On 1 May 2018, the magistrate is expected to announce whether the evidence is sufficient for Pell to be ordered to undergo a criminal trial with a judge in a higher court.

Royal Commission inquiry

In late 2012, the Australian federal government instigated a public inquiry (the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse), with the ultimate task of making recommendations to the federal and state governments about how to protect children in public organisations in future.

The Royal Commission's public hearings examined how religious organisations (including the the Catholic Church) have handled (or mis-handled) the general issue of church-related sex-abuse in the past. Many church office-bearers (including Archbishop George Pell) were called to give evidence (and to be cross-examined) about these church policies. The public could watch these proceedings in telecasts on the Royal Commission's website. The website also published a printed transcript of all these public hearings.

In the Catholic Church, the Royal Commission heard examples of secrecy and cover-up regarding clergy sexual abuse.

Behind the scenes

During the years of the Royal Commission, any citizen had a right to contact the Royal Commission's office privately (by letter or email or telephone), offering additional information. For example, a citizen might tell the Commission's office that he/she had been sexually abused by a particular clergy person within a particular religious denomination. However, the Royal Commission did NOT investigate (or publish) these alleged incidents; instead, the alleged victim was offered the opportunity to have a private chat with police detectives.

In the state of Victoria, these detectives were from the Sano Taskforce, within the Victoria Police sexual crimes squad.

Pell in three public hearings

During its five years, the Royal Commission held 57 public hearings, lasting for a total of 444 days. In these public hearings, the Royal Commission examined 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 George Pell formerly worked:

  • 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 the archbishop of Sydney in 2001-2014, 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 where Pell had been the archbishop in 1996-2001). 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, where Pell was a priest in the 1970s). Again, Pell appeared by video-link from Rome.

"Little knowledge of abuse"

During the years of the Royal Commission, George Pell was widely reported as saying that, earlier in his career, he had known very little about clergy child-sexual abuse ("only rumours") and, furthermore, that he personally finds such abuse "abhorrent". If any person then contacted the Royal Commission's office (as a result of George Pell's statements) to report their own experience regarding George Pell, the commission's office could offer this person the opportunity to speak privately with a detective from Taskforce Sano.

Worldwide attention

Because of Pell's absence from Australia, people attending the Royal Commission's public hearings in Australia were forced to watch the cross-examination of Pell on a large video screen in the Sydney or Melbourne hearings room. By giving his Royal Commission evidence in Rome (instead of in Australia), Pell increased the worldwide interest in his evidence.

And because of Pell's reluctance to re-visit Australia, some people wondered whether the Victoria Police Sano Taskforce had received privately any allegations about Pell. If so, the detectives would offer to accept a sworn written statement from any alleged victim outlining the circumstances of the complaint. The complaint would not become an official allegation until, and unless, the person accepted the opportunity to sign a sworn written statement. The alleged victim had the right to accept or decline this opportunity.

On 19 February 2016, Pell's office issued a media statement from Pell, objecting to any "police investigation" — that is, objecting to the police examining any such sworn written statements. Pell's own media statement about this "police investigation" drew worldwide attention to Pell — and to the idea of a possible police investigation.

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, George Pell's office began considering legal tactics to protect Pell from any police investigation. During 2016, Pell's strategists began consulting Robert Richter QC, who has been described as Australia's foremost criminal defence counsel. Richter has acted in some high-profile cases. He was the defence counsel for Julian Knight, who fatally shot seven people and injured 19 in Melbourne's "Hoddle Street massacre" in 1987. And he successfully pleaded self-defence for gangland figure Mick Gatto who shot criminal Andrew "Benji" Veniamin in a Melbourne restaurant in 2014.

During 2016, Pell's legal team realised that the Victoria Police were not going to abandon the alleged victims who evidently had provided the police with sworn, written statements about certain alleged incidents. In accordance with police procedures, the Sano Taskforce needed to interview Pell to obtain his response to the statements of any alleged victims. But how could the Victoria Police gain access to him as an official in a foreign state, the Vatican?

Eventually, in October 2016 (after negotiations between Pell's defence team and the Victorian prosecuting authorities), George Pell agreed to be 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.

At the same time, Robert Richter QC too went to Rome to support Pell during the detectives' inquiries.

Pell returns to Australia, 2017

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 (as a priest, bishop and archbishop) in the State of Victoria (that is, between the early 1970s and late 1990s)

The Magistrates Court did not release any details about the charges, including the number (or kinds) of charges or the number of alleged victims or where (or in what year) the alleged incidents occurred. These details were withheld from the public for legal reasons.

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.

Preliminary hearing, 2018

On 5 March 2018, the Magistrates Court (under magistrate Belinda Wallington) began holding a four-weeks preliminary hearing (known as a "committal" hearing), during which the magistrate would hear a preview of all evidence to decide whether to send the case for a trial with a judge in a higher court, the Victorian County Court.

There were restrictions on media coverage. As usual in Victorian sexual abuse cases, the court was closed to the public and the media during the first week and a half while each of the alleged victims appeared. Each victim appeared by video-link from another location. On each occasion, the prosecutor would introduce the alleged victim to the court and would ask this person to inspect their written police statement, which was then handed to the magistrate. After this introductory procedure, Pell's legal team would cross-examine each of these witnesses at length, targeting the sworn written statement and disputing the witnesses' credibility.

In the middle of the second week of the hearing, the court was opened to the media. Pell's legal team then began cross-examining various other witnesses (such as family members or other helpers), accusing these witnesses of telling lies in their written pollce statements.

Several times, the magistrate had to stop the defence lawyers from ripping into the complainants and their family members.

During the four-weeks hearing, the court learned that several witnesses were no longer available. One of Pell’s accusers died (from leukemia) shortly before this committal hearing, and therefore the prosecutors had to delete this person (and his charges) from the case. A second witness did not complete the necessary full police written statement in time to be included in this hearing, and therefore (the court was told) this person might not be included in this committal hearing. And the court was told that a third person was "medically unfit" to face the court and therefore this person's charges must be deleted from the Pell case.

When journalists were allowed into the hearing (after the first week and a half), the court prohibited the media from publishing details of the alleged offences. Therefore, because of the lack of such prosecution details, the media reports were largely about the defence, especially about the defence barrister Robert Richter, who is renowned for his confrontational courtroom tactics. As the Melbourne Age newspaper put it, Richter "mercilessly tore into police, advocates for victims of sexual abuse and even the magistrate". When magistrate Belinda Wallington tried to restore order in the courtroom, Richter demanded that Ms Wallington should disqualify herself from the hearing. Ms Wallington refused this demand.

On 17 April 2018, the court met again (for one day) to hear final submissions from the prosecution and the defence. Again, Pell's lawyer Robert Richter accused the complainants (and the prosecution's other witnesses) of telling lies. Again, Richter's antics provided headlines for the media.

On 1 May 2018, the magistrate is expected to announce whether there is sufficient evidence for the case to proceed to the next stage in the judicial process — a criminal trial with a judge in a higher court, the Victorian County Court.

Defence lawyers committing "mischief"

On 2 March (three days before Pell's committal hearing began), Mr Robert Fitzgerald (one of the six commissioners who conducted Australia's child-abuse Royal Commission) gave a talk in Sydney, in which he criticised defence lawyers who “mischievously” attack the credibility of abuse victims in court. To see more from Mr Robert Fitzgerald click HERE.