Background article: Why is Cardinal George Pell not re-appearing in Australia?

By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 1 November 2016

Cardinal George Pell is a frequent flyer, travelling in comfort 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 career opportunities at the Vatican. Now he has become the third most important person in the Vatican. He now possesses a Vatican passport. He still travels from his Rome headquarters to other countries but is not re-appearing in Australia at present. This Broken Rites article examines the background to this situation.

For example, in March-April 2015, Pell 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 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). Pell made his next appearance (for the Royal Commission) by video-link in the week beginning 29 February 2016.

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 had 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 offered 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.

3 case-studies: Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat

George Pell, who was born in Ballarat in 1941, was a Ballarat East priest from 1973 to 1983 and was in charge of education in the Ballarat diocese over that period. He 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 (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 (about how clergy sexual abuse was handled in Melbourne and suburbs). For this case study, Pell was questioned in May 2015 by video-link, just after his secret visit to Australia.
  • Case Study 28 (about how clergy sexual abuse was handled in 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 (about church procedures) 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.

Royal Commission and the child-protection police

The purpose of this Royal Commission is to investigate how religious and other organisations have dealt with the problem of child sexual abuse, so that the Commission can eventually provide recommendations to the federal and state governments about child protection.

As well as holding public hearings (open to the public and the media), the Commission has held private informal interviews with more than 4,000 victims (or witnesses) around Australia. If the Commission hears about a particular crime during a private interview, the complainant is offered the opportunity to discuss this matter with a detective from the state police force — and the Royal Commission can arrange this contact. The victim is entitled to accept or decline this offer.

In Victoria, this role is performed by detectives in the state's Sano Task Force, specialising in investigations about child sexual abuse. After interviewing any complainant (via the Royal Commission), these detectives invite the informant to lodge a written statement about the incidents. The police investigation is done discreetly, and the alleged offender would not know about the investigation until (eventually) the detectives contact the alleged offender. Of course, if the alleged offender is overseas, it is difficult for the Victoria Police to obtain access to this person.

Pell visits France but not Ausrtalia 

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 making this trip.

By early December 2015, the Royal Commission was well advanced into its four-weeks public hearing about Melbourne and Ballarat matters.

According to Royal Commission documents, a Qantas Airways booking was made for Pell to fly from Rome to Melbourne (in a business-class seat) on the weekend of December 12-13, in order to be in the witness-box at the Royal commission in the week beginning Monday 14 December, after which there was another Qantas booking made for Pell to return to Rome on December 21. (These travel arrangements are outlined in Royal Commission document EXH.028.500.0001_R, dated 30 November 2015.)

On Friday 11 December (a day before Pell was scheduled to fly from Rome to 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, if the length of the flight was a problem, why didn't 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.

Pell still missing in 2016

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: "No, Your Honour, he is still not well enough to visit Australia".

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 the Royal Commission, 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. While in Rome, these Australian victims were interviewed by world-wide media.

Pell's refusal to re-visit Australia for the Royal Commission certainly increased the public scrutiny of him around the world. Indeed, for Pell, it was a public relations disaster:

  1. By giving his Royal Commission evidence in Rome, Pell's decision had the unintended consequence of magnifying the event, which might otherwise have remained confined to a few news cycles in Australia. Now Pell prompted European and American media to cover a story about pedophile priests, the rape of children and the church's botched cover-up — a story which the Vatican doesn't welcome.
  2. Pell inadvertently prompted the Australian media to wonder why he ix not re-appearing in public in Australia nowadays.

Melbourne "Herald Sun"

Pell's disappearance prompted the Melbourne Herald Sun newsroom to wonder whether perhaps any church-victims had lodged complaints to the Royal Commission (or elsewhere) about any incidents involving Pell. Therefore, in February 2016, the Herald Sun sent some questions to Pell in Rome, asking if there is a "police investigation" of any matters that are relevant to Pell.

Pell responded by issuing a general statement, available to all media for immediate publication, objecting to any "police investigation" about him. This reply was available not only to the Herald Sun but also to the Herald Sun's rivals — the Fairfax newspapers and ABC radio-TV news. Because of Pell's media release, the Herald Sun feared being scooped now by its rivals, so it hurriedly published its own story about a "police investigation", together with Pell's denial about there being any "police investigation".

Pell's media statement attacked the Victoria Police (instead of blaming the Royal Commission or the Herald Sun).

Thus, Pell's own office had a hand in bringing this "police investigation" story to the world in February 2016.

Sources for an investigative journalist

Pell's February 2016 media statement presumed that the "police investigation" story must have been a "leak" to journalists from "the police". But investigative journalists like to conduct their own investigations.

There are other possible sources, not involving the Victoria Police. For example, any sensible investigative journalist would surely contact any of the well-known members of the Ballarat victims group, asking if they know of any relevant informants.

An investigative journalist could also contact any of the specialist solicitors who are consulted by Victorian victims seeking compensation from the Catholic Church for a damaged life. There are several legal firms in Victoria specialising in this work, and they know about civil cases which are still in the planning stage.

Meanwhile, Cardinal George Pell is settled into his new lifestyle in Rome, far away from the investigative journalists of Australia. Any investigators from Australia who want to interview George Pell, in person, will need to travel to Rome to do so — if Pell agrees to be interviewed.