George Pell's court case: Some background

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, with information up to 2 May 2018

Cardinal George Pell has claimed (during Australia's Royal Commission inquiry into child sexual abuse between 2012 and 2016) that, during his priestly career, he knew very little about clergy child-sexual abuse ("only rumours"). Now Pell's claim is being disputed by government prosecutors who are currently charging Pell in court regarding child sexual abuse allegedly committed by George Pell during his career while he was ministering in the state of Victoria. This article is about some of the background, from 2012 onwards.

Royal Commission's public hearings

Between 2012 and 2016, the Australian federal government sponsored a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to examine how religious organisations (including the Catholic Church) have handled (or covered up) 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) in public hearings about these church policies. The public hearings were reported in the news media and on the internet.

Private interviews 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

Meanwhile, in 2014, Pell moved from Australia to Rome to take up a senior role in the Vatican and was reluctant to re-visit Australia for his next interview at the Royal Commission. Therefore, people attending the Royal Commission's public hearings in Australia were forced to watch the cross-examination of Pell (from Rome) 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 statement. 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 any alleged victim who evidently had provided the police with a sworn, written statement 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 victim. But how could the Victoria Police gain access to Pell 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 any statement by any alleged victim.

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 information regarding child sexual abuse allegedly committed by Pell earlier in his career during the time when he was in the State of Victoria.

The Magistrates Court did not release any details about the allegations.

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 case.

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 child sexual abuse cases, the court was closed to the public and the media while any alleged victim was giving evidence. The victim (now an adult) would appear by video-link from another location; 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 this alleged victim at length, targeting the sworn written statement and disputing the credibility of the witness.

After this video-link evidence, 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 police statements.

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

Because of the lack of details about the alleged sexual abuse, 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.

In attacking the Victoria Police, Richter alleged that the detectives were carrying out a "get Pell" campaign. In fact, however, the case was initiated in court by the Victorian Government's Office of Public Prosecutions, not by the police.

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 prosecution's witnesses of telling lies. Again, Richter's antics provided headlines for the media.

Sent to trial

On 1 May 2018, magistrate Wallington ruled that enough evidence was presented in court at the March 2018 hearing to take the case to the next stage in the judicial process — criminal trial in a higher court, the Victorian County Court.

On May 1 and 2 in 2018, the George Pell case had its first brief mention in the Victorian County Court. George Pell officially submitted his plea of Not Guilty.

The judge asked Robert Richter QC if funding was in place to pay for Cardinal Pell’s legal costs. Richter replied, ‘‘No problems with funding, Your Honour.’’

The proceedings up to 2 May 2018 were purely for administrative purposes. At some future time, the court would schedule a date for the commencement of the criminal trial.

While awaiting his court appearance, George Pell is released on bail, on condition that he must not leave Australia. He has surrendered his passport. He must reside at an address that is known to the court authorities.

  • The above article gives some background of the George Pell case as it stood on 2 May 2018.