He’s the highest-ranking Catholic official to be charged with allegations of child sexual abuse and his case has been covered in-depth in the media.
On the 7th April 2020 a decision was made by the High Court of Australia to overturn his conviction on appeal. It was ruled that there is a significant possibility that an innocent person had been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof. He spent 400 days in jail.
George Pell set up programs to “support” victims of child sexual abuse in Melbourne. He encouraged victims to come forward and share their experiences. He flaunted his “success” in the media and painted the picture of a modern saint.
How wrong he was.
George Pell was born to a non-practicing Anglican family. His mother was Catholic and his father was a heavy-weight boxing champion.
Otherwise, his childhood was seemingly unremarkable.
In 1960, George Pell began his priesthood studies at Corpus Christi College in Werribee. He studied alongside serial paedophile Gerald Ridsdale – a friend for life.
He was known for being smart, sharp-tongued and at times, manipulative. He could win any argument with his peers. He was a star student – he served as class prefect in his second and third years of study, then in 1963, he was selected to finish his studies at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.
He was ordained a priest on the 15th of August 1966 at St. Peter’s Basilica.
When he returned to Australia, he served as assistant priest at Swan Hill in northwest Victoria. Later, he also served in Ballarat East.
In 1996, George Pell was named Archbishop of Melbourne after receiving the pallium from Pope John Paul II. Around this time, institutional child sex abuse allegations were becoming more prevalent in public debate.
To keep himself in the Pope’s good books, Pell launched the Melbourne Response Protocol. The protocol encouraged victims of abuse to come forward, report their experiences and receive support from the Catholic Church – however limited.
This preceded the “Towards Healing” program which is known for re-traumatising victims of abuse and preventing them from taking further civil action against the church.
Child sexual abuse investigators, Broken Rites Australia, described “Towards Healing” as “a business strategy designed to protect the church’s assets and its corporate image”.
The program was designed to protect the church from the legal liability of compensating some victims. The church wanted to avoid compensation altogether – however, sometimes the church would offer a discounted settlement if the victim agreed not to pursue litigation to the full amount he or she’d be entitled to.
George Pell said he was doing a “public service” with the Melbourne Response Protocol – a statement that was considered self-serving and unempathetic to the plight of child sexual abuse survivors.
He was patting himself on the back for a broken, ineffective program that damaged victims further.
He must have been doing something right – he was appointed Archbishop of Sydney in 2001 and elevated to the Sacred College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II. In 2013, he was appointed to the Council of Cardinals on Organisational and Economic Problems of the Holy See.
The success just kept rolling in for Pell.
Soon, he was flown to Rome to serve Pope Francis. He and a group of eight other cardinals advised on the government of the church and elected Prefect for Secretariat of the Economy in 2013.
Before leaving for Rome, George Pell said, “I apologise once again to the victims and their families for the terrible suffering that has been brought to bear by these crimes.”
He also said he “looked forward” to the Royal Commission’s findings and patted himself on the back.
All this while “Operation Tethering” was unfolding with the Victorian Police.
The special task force was investigating unreported allegations of child sexual abuse against Pell. In 2001, a Victorian man named Damian Dignan claimed Pell abused him at a youth camp when he was 12-years-old. While Pell was exonerated, the Victorian Police weren’t going to drop the case.
Operation Tethering investigated between five and 10 cases between 1978 and 2001 when Pell was a priest in Ballarat and then the Archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell denied rumours about the investigation in the media – but his luck had to run out sometime.
In March 2014, George Pell was called back to Australia to give evidence at the Royal Commission. He was questioned about John Ellis – a former altar boy who was sexually abused by the parish priest, Father Aidan Duggan. Ellis sought compensation from the Catholic Church but he was offered a small settlement through Towards Healing.
In August, he gave evidence on the Melbourne Response from the Vatican.
In 2016, he faced the commission again regarding the Catholic Church’s handling of child abuse allegations in the Ballarat Diocese and Melbourne Archdiocese. Pell had heart problems and refused to fly, so many victims of abuse flew to Rome to hear Pell speak.
Operating Tethering was closing in on him. Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton, confirmed Operation Tethering was investigating George Pell.
Three Victorian police officers flew to Rome to interview Pell about the allegations. The interviews gave the Victorian Police enough information for them to take the next step – in June 2018, the Victorian Police charged Pell with child sexual abuse of several victims.
However, Pell was confident about the trial.
He appeared at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court for a filing hearing and entered a plea of not guilty. Neither of these actions were required. He wanted to be a martyr in the public eye – he knew how to use the media to his advantage.
The Victorian Magistrate said Damian’s death would affect the structure of Pell’s case. Damian’s death meant there was one less witness to testify against Pell. Pell’s lawyers then requested the medical histories of the other accusers.
Naturally, they were denied.
In March 2018, 50 witnesses testified against George Pell in court. Most of them were former choirboys and Pell’s lawyer cross-examined all but five witnesses. Afterward, Pell was committed to stand trial. Magistrate Belinda Wallington decided there was enough evidence for the case to proceed on about half of the charges.
In December, Pell was convicted of five counts of child sexual abuse against two underage boys. The allegations involved indecent exposure, fondling, masturbation and oral rape. He was given a unanimous guilty verdict by the jury.
Pell was allowed out on bail but this was revoked in January 2019. His lawyers had filed an appeal which was to be televised for all of Australia to see.
In March 2019, Chief Judge Peter Kidd sentenced Pell to serve six years in jail with a non-parole period of three years and eight months. He was also registered as a sex offender.
In August 2019, the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria issued its ruling which upheld the conviction. His appeal failed – and he was sent back to Melbourne Assessment Prison.
It seemed like George Pell had gotten what he deserved. There had been whispers and rumours of child abuse for years, but he used his charm, manipulative personality and friends in high places to skirt around the issue.
He had the gall to sit before the commissioners in 2013 and 2014 with a straight face.
He didn’t even break a sweat.
Finally, it seemed like Pell was going to be punished for his heinous crimes.
But in September 2019, one month after his failed appeal, Pell was granted one final chance in the High Court of Australia. The outcome of the appeal was won by Pell on the ruling that there was reasonable doubt the abuse did not occur.
Chrissie Foster, an abuse victims’ advocate, said the High Court’s decision was “disappointing” to say the least.
“Victims of abuse will feel the same – they’ll feel very disappointed that this permission has been granted and that it’s going to continue,” Chrissie said.
The father of one of George Pell’s victims, who died from a fatal heroin overdose, has said he’s “gutted” Pell was given another chance.
“I will always miss the innocent little choirboy that was my son, such a tragic waste of a beautiful boy whose life became a nightmare for himself and those around him,” the unnamed father said.
At Kelso Lawyers, we’re committed to supporting and representing victims of child sexual abuse. Offenders like George Pell can’t be allowed to breeze through life without punishment.
We’re on your side.