George Pell returns to Australia: Some background

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 11 December 2017

After he moved from Australia to Rome in 2014 for a senior role in the Vatican, Cardinal George Pell became reluctant to re-visit Australia. When he was asked (in 2014-2017) to give evidence at Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Pell preferred to appear from Rome by video-link. He said health problems were preventing him from travelling to Australia. 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. This Broken Rites article gives some background about Pell's travels in the years 2014 to 2017, based largely on our research into the public hearings of the Royal Commission.

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 is often contacted privately by various persons who may complain about having been abused by a particular clergy person. However, the Royal Commission does NOT investigate these alleged crimes; instead, the alleged victim is 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.

Pell's travels

George Pell (born in 1941) was a priest in the Ballarat diocese (covering the western half of the State of Victoria) from 1969 to 1983. He was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne (from 1987 to 1996), became the archbishop of Melbourne (from 1996 to 2001) and then the archbishop of Sydney (gaining the rank of Cardinal).

Cardinal George Pell has always been a frequent flyer. During his years as an Archbishop in Australia, he often made the flight to Rome, mixing with important people in the Vatican. In 2014, he gained his current senior role in the Vatican (in charge of the Vatican's treasury). He continued to travel regularly from Rome to other countries. For example, during 2016 and early 2017, he made a number of trips from Rome to London (most recently, in mid-May 2017).

For several years, from early 2015 to mid-2017, he became reluctant to make a public appearance in Australia.

However, Broken Rites has ascertained that, in March-April 2015, Pell made a private 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 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 private 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 travelling to France or other countries, only in only in travelling to Australia). Pell made his next appearance (for the Royal Commission) by video-link in the week beginning 29 February 2016.

Pell's private 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.

News of the school magazine article (and the private trip) reached journalists in Australia during the Royal 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.

For Pell, a video-link is a much easier experience than appearing in person in the same court-room as the church-victims and their families.

Video-link 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.

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. Alternatively, in the middle of the journey, Pell could have a relaxing stop-over somewhere. But, clearly, Pell was not keen to make a public visit to Australia in 2015-2016.

3 case-studies: Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat

The Royal Commission has been examining a series case-studies about the general issue of cover up; and three of these case-studies were about regions where 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 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 private 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). Again, Pell "appeared" from Rome by video-link.

Pell announces a health problem

By early December 2015, the Royal Commission was well advanced into its four-weeks public hearing about Melbourne and Ballarat matters.The Royal Commission hoped to do its final cross-examination of Pell (about church procedures) for Case Study 28 at a public hearing in Melbourne mid-December 2015.

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.)

Meanwhile, on Wednesday 2 December 2015, detectives from the Victoria Police sex-crimes squad ("Taskforce Sano") executed a search warrant on certain Catholic Church premises in Victoria.

A few days later (just 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; and he would prefer to appear by video-link from Rome.

Pell still missing in 2016 and in early-2017

On 5 February 2016, the Royal Commission held a brief procedure (a "directions hearing") in Sydney to ascertain whether Cardinal Pell would be 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 travel to Australia".

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 while on oath).

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.

Pell makes other trips but not to Australia

Although George Pell was not well enough to re-appear in Australia during 2016, his health did not prevent him from travelling from Rome to other countries around this time.

For example:

  • 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.
  • A church organisation (the New Liturgical Movement) reported, on 26 May 2016, that Cardinal George Pell conducted a Pontifical High Mass at the London Oratory for the Feast of St Philip Neri.
  • Dan Hitchens, deputy editor of the Catholic Herald (U.K.), reported on 29 Nov 2016 that Cardinal Pell gave a talk at St Patrick’s Church, London, about contemporary Catholicism.
  • On 13 May 2017, the Sydney Morning Herald website (and other media outlets) published a photograph of Cardinal Pell arriving at London's Heathrow airport. The photo was taken by an Australian journalist (Zoie Jones), who is based in Rome. Evidently this journalist happened to notice Cardinal Pell walking through the airport, with his luggage, after the plane landed.

Headlines in Rome

Meanwhile, because of Pell's absence from Australia, people attending the Royal Commission's public hearings 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 were interviewed and filmed by world-wide media.

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 the 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.

Pell's refusal to re-visit Australia for the Royal Commission certainly increased public interest of this issue around the world.

Questions to Pell from the media

Pell's non-appearance in Australia also 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. Police detectives are obliged to examine any such complaint if the alleged victim requests this. The alleged victim is required to provide a signed statement, and the signing is witnessed by the detective.

Pell's office responded to the Herald Sun by issuing a written statement, objecting to any such "police investigation". Pell's media statement attacked the Victoria Police (instead of attacking the Herald Sun or the Royal Commission).

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. Thus, in February 2016, Pell's own media-crisis strategists had a hand in bringing this "police investigation" story to the whole world.

Pell's defence lawyers

During 2016, Pell's strategists began consulting Australian lawyers, notably the prominent Melbourne criminal-defence barrister Robert Richter, QC.

Ideally, Pell's lawyers hoped to persuade the Victoria Police not take any action against Pell.

Eventually, in late 2016, 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. The detectives' trip to Rome became a worldwide news story, thanks largely to George Pell criticising the police for investigating the statements of the alleged victims.

At least one member of Pell's legal team flew from Melbourne to Rome for Pell's police interview, although this lawyer's trip seems to have escaped the attention of the media.

Pell is charged in 2017

In mid-2017, after lengthy negotiations, Pell agreed to return to Australia, so that his legal team could fight the charges in court. On 26 July 2017, Pell appeared in briefly in the Melbourne Magistrates Court, accompanied by Robert Richter QC. This was an administrative hearing 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 is not releasing (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 offences occurred.

After some further administrative hearings during the remainder of 2017, the Magistrates Court is scheduled to hold a four-weeks committal hearing regarding Pell in March 2018, with restrictions on media coverage. (Sometimes any defence lawyer might seek to have such a committal hearing abandoned, or perhaps adjourned to a much later date.) At the end of the committal hearing, the magistrate's role is to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to order Pell to face a trial with a judge in a higher court, the Victorian County Court.

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.