Cardinal George Pell's funny performance at the Royal Commission

Article updated by a Broken Rites researcher, 11 March 2016

Cardinal George Pell's performance at Australia's national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (on 2 March 2016) was very funny (that is, funny in the sense of being very strange). To see the hilarious side (in a cartoon in The Guardian Australia), click HERE.

Here is an earlier version of this Broken Rites article

Cardinal George Pell is a frequent flyer, travelling in Business Class. During his years as Archbishop of Sydney, he would regularly make the flight to Rome so as to keep an eye on developments and opportunities at the Vatican.

Now he still goes on plane trips from his Rome headquarters.

For example, in March-April 2015, he made a secret trip by air to Australia, and then he returned to Rome in time to "appear" by video-link (instead of really appearing in person) for a public hearing of Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission a few weeks later (in May 2015). The Commissioners had approved Pell's May 2015 video-link because of the long distance if Pell had to fly to Australia from Rome. The Commissioners did not know of Pell's recent secret trip but the trip became known by the time of the May 2015 hearing. And Pell's video-link in May 2015 turned out to be a technological disaster. The Commissioners then asked Pell to appear in person at his next scheduled public hearing in Australia (in December 2015) but Pell refused to re-visit Australia, citing "health problems" (as a 74-year-old man) as grounds for getting yet another video-link. Meanwhile, a few weeks before his December 2015 "sick note", Pell travelled from Rome to France to tour the World War One battlefields (but Pell doesn't have "health problems" in France, only in Australia). Now Pell is making his next non-appearance by video-link in the week beginning 29 February 2016. By giving his evidence in Rome, Pell he has subjected himself to scrutiny by the international media.

Pell's secret trip to Australia in March-April 2015 included a visit to his home town, Ballarat, which is the town at the centre of church-abuse allegations (and the cover-up) in western Victoria. Pell's trip was revealed in the April 2015 edition of the magazine of St Patrick's College, Ballarat — the school where Pell had been a pupil. The magazine article, which has been seen by Broken Rites, indicates that Pell's visit to the school occurred about 27 March 2015, "during a short vacation in Australia". There is a photo of Pell, together with headmaster John Crowley, while touring the school to see its latest extensions.

The editors of this school magazine didn't realise that, by revealing Pell's visit, they were "letting the cat out of the bag". News of the school magazine article (and the secret trip) reached journalists in Australia during the Commission's May 2015 public hearing.

Even the Australian Catholic bishops' spokesman on Royal Commission matters (Mr Francis Sullivan, from the church's "Truth, Justice and Healing Commission") didn't know about the trip until journalists told him in May 2015.

It is not known what else Pell did during his March-April 2015 trip to Australia but it would have been an ideal opportunity to have discussions with his Australian lawyers and his communications strategists, to figure out how to handle the Royal Commission and the church's victims. These advisers would understand the tactic of having a video-link from Rome instead of Pell appearing in Australia in person.

For Pell, a video-link is much easier experience than appearing in person in the same court-room as the church-victims and their families. Each of the victims has already been required to give their evidence to the Commission in person. Some of the church's victims have "health problems", caused by the abuse and by the church's cover-up. And one Ballarat victim, who now lives in Europe, had been required (unlike Pell) to make the long trip by air to Australia. Other victims came from interstate.

A video link has problems

The Commission's cross-examining of Pell, by video link, in May 2015 was a technical disaster, with disruptions to the vision and/or the sound. And, with the Royal Commissioners sitting in a court-room in Ballarat, it was difficult for the commissioners to show certain documents to Pell when seeking his comment about those documents.

A public hearing is not for the purpose of Pell "presenting his evidence" — that is, not for making a speech. It is to enable the Commissioners (and various lawyers, representing the church's victims) to cross-examine the person who is giving evidence (in this instance, George Pell).

Church victims in Australia are offering to pay first-class air fares for a specialist doctor to accompany Pell on a flight to Australia for the Royal Commission. But, clearly, Pell is not keen to make a public visit to Australia at present, at least not until all this scrutiny is finished.

On Sunday 21 February 2016, the website of the Daily Mail Australia published photographs (taken the previous day) of George Pell, strolling around the streets of Rome. So he is quite happy to roam around in Rome (but not, at present, in Australia).

3 case-studies: Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat

George Pell, who was born in Ballarat in 1941, was a Ballarat East priest from 1973 to 1983, in charge of education in the Ballarat diocese over that period and also acted as an adviser to Bishop Mulkearns. He was later the archbishop of Melbourne (from 1996 to 2001) and then became the archbishop of Sydney before gaining his current senior role in the Vatican (in charge of the Vatican's treasury) in 2014.

The Royal Commission has been examining a series of three specific case-studies:

  • Case Study 8, held in Sydney, in March 2014, concerning Sydney matters. 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 (about how clergy sexual abuse was handled in the archdiocese of Melbourne, which means the Melbourne metropolitan area). For this case study, Pell was questioned in May 2015 by video-link, just after his secret visit to Australia.
  • Case Study 28 (about the diocese of Ballarat, covering the western half of the state of Victoria).

The Royal Commission had hoped to do its final cross-examination of Pell for Case Study 28 at a public hearing in Melbourne on 16 December 2015. This is the public hearing that Pell dodged when his lawyers lodged his "sick note".

If a possible witness is overseas, a royal commission does not have the power to force this person to come to Australia to be questioned at a hearing of the royal commission. However, a royal commission can refer certain matters to Australian police for further investigation. (For example, in Victoria the Royal Commission co-operates with detectives in the Sano Taskforce, who investigate child-sex crimes for the Victoria Police.) The final task of Australia's child-abuse royal commission is to provide a comprehensive list of recommendations to governments and institutions to ensure that errors of the past are prevented from happening again.

Why is Pell avoiding a PUBLIC visit to Australia?

Australian observers noticed several interesting events occurring in church affairs in late 2015, around the time when Pell suddenly went missing:

  • In November 2015, just weeks before he was due to attend the Royal Commission in Melbourne, Pell travelled to France (to visit World War One battlefields), according to a report published later in the Melbourne Herald Sun. Evidently his health did not prevent him from taking this trip.
  • By early December 2015, the Royal Commission was well advanced into its four-weeks public hearing about Melbourne and Ballarat matters
  • Around this time (according to a later reports), Victoria Police detectives were investigating complaints about child-sex assaults that were allegedly committed at Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral between 1996 and 2001. On Wednesday 2 December (according to Fairfax Media), detectives from the Victoria Police sex-crimes squad executed a search warrant on premises associated with Melbourne's St Patrick's Catholic cathedral.
  • On Friday 11 December (three working-days before Pell was due to step into the witness-box in Melbourne), it was announced at the Royal Commission public hearing that Cardinal Pell has decided that, for "health" reasons, he does not wish to make another plane trip from Rome to Melbourne. [But did he consider travelling in first-class, accompanied by a doctor, and doing the trip in stages with stopovers along the way?]. Pell sent the Royal Commission a medical certificate signed by a medical specialist who works for the Vatican. The medical certificate didn't say that Pell couldn't travel; it merely indicated that that it would be better for Pell if he did the evidence by video-link from Rome.
  • On 23 December, the Victoria Police sex crimes squad issued a media release, saying that the squad's Sano Taskforce wants to hear from any members of the public who have knowledge about any child-sex assaults that were allegedly committed at Melbourne's cathedral between 1996 and 2001.To read more about this police investigation, click HERE.

On 5 February 2016, the Royal Commission held a brief procedure (a "directions hearing") to ascertain whether Cardinal Pell is prepared to visit Australia to appear in person when the public hearing (on the Melbourne and Ballarat case studies) resumes later in February 2016. The answer from Pell's lawyers was (surprise, surprise): "No, Your Honour, he is still not well enough".

Significantly, Broken Rites can reveal that Cardinal Pell's chief media strategist (Katrina Lee, from the Sydney Archdiocese headquarters) was one of the Pell support team (e.g., lawyers, etc) who were present at this directions hearing. In the past, many of Pell's statements regarding church's sex-abuse have been issued (in Pell's name) by his media strategists as "media releases" (rather than being uttered by Pell himself at a public hearing, where he can be cross-examined).

This same media manager, Katrina Lee, travelled to Rome to assist Pell when he was to be interviewed by the Royal Commission, by video link from Rome in the week beginning Monday 29 February 2016.

The Melbourne-Ballarat public hearing resumed in the week beginning Monday 22 February 2016 — this time in Ballarat. Pell was to be questioned by video link from Rome in the week beginning February 29.

Because of Pell's absence from Australia, people attending the public hearing in Sydney were forced to watch the cross-examination of Pell on a large video screen. Some victims flew to Rome, so they could be present in the conference room in which Pell is being cross-examined by video-link from Australia.

Pell's refusal to re-visit Australia for the Royal Commission has certainly increased the public scrutiny of him around the world.

To see more from Broken Rites about Pell's background in Australia, click HERE.