Cardinal George Pell rose through the ranks because he was fiercely intelligent, an undeniably hard worker, and made himself indispensable to the Vatican.
In the media, he defended the Catholic Church and papacy against liberal ideals. He was known for being quick-witted and charismatic but also manipulative. He could destroy any rival in an argument. He used all of these characteristics – and more – to sway the media in his favour.
However, his rise to power and prevalence was not without its challenges.
The media was not always in his favour, either.
Pell rose from a small-town football player to Pope Francis’ third in command. He was infamous for the scandalous child sexual allegations surrounding him, the related trial, conviction, and the acquittal that shocked Australia.
In this article, we explore Pell’s timeline from Ballarat to the Vatican, highlighting important dates and events in Pell’s lifetime.
Cardinal George Pell: A Timeline
- 1941 – George was born in Ballarat, Victoria, to a strict Catholic mother and a heavyweight boxing champion father.
- 1960 – Pell begins studying for his ordination at Corpus Christi College in Werribee. Other notable alumni include John Day, Gerald Ridsdale, Bob Claffey, and Paul David Ryan. It must be noted that throughout his time at Corpus Christi, Pell was known as a straight shooter, a man who had strong opinions and had the intellect and vernacular to destroy anyone who had more liberal or contentious opinions verbally.
- 1963 – Studied at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome. It was here his connection with Rome began.
- 1966 – Pell was ordained as a Catholic Priest. He studied church history at Oxford, achieving a doctorate.
- 1972 – Pell returned to Ballarat. He started out as an assistant parish priest in Swan Hill. He continued his education in Melbourne, earning a Master of Education.
- 1973 – For some time, Pell lived in the St Alipius presbytery. This is where he was living with Gerald Ridsdale. St Alipius was a hub for many paedophile priests, including Robert Best and Edward Dowlan. The Royal Commission heard in 1971 every male teacher (including the chaplain) was molesting children at the school. The abuses were likely continuing during Pell’s time in St Alipius.
- 1973-1984 – Pell served as Episcopal vicar for education in the Diocese of Ballarat. Throughout this time, paedophile priest Peter Searson was abusing students at the Holy Family School. One such student was Julie Stewart, who received a letter from Pell in 1996 acknowledging and apologising for her suffering at the hand of Searson. In his role as an Episcopal vicar, Pell would have known about Searson’s abuses against children.It was also around this time Emma and Katie Foster were being abused by Father Kevin O’Donnell. It was later proven the Catholic Church knew O’Donnell was a paedophile. In 1982 Gerald Ridsdale was in Mortlake and had a young boy (Paul Levey) living with him at the request of the boy’s father. This young boy was raped daily, and Pell was aware of the living situation.
- 1985-1987 – Pell served as seminary rector for his alma mater Corpus Christi.
- 1987 – Pell was ordained as the Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne. He served under Archbishop Frank Little.
- 1988-1997 – Pell became the Chair of Caritas Australia. Caritas Australia is one of the largest Catholic charities specialising in international aid and development.
- 1993 – Pell famously accompanied serial paedophile and friend Gerald Ridsdale to his first court appearance for child sex offences.
- June 1996 – Pell was appointed the Archbishop of Melbourne by Pope John Paul II.
- October 1996 – Pell announced the Melbourne Response for handling child sex abuse complaints in Melbourne Archdiocese. It is important to note there was another protocol in the works called Towards Healing. The scheme was being developed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in consultation with stakeholders and victims groups.
- 2001 – Pell was appointed the Archbishop of Sydney by Pope John Paul II.
- 2003 – John Paul II elevated Pell to the Sacred College of Cardinals.
- 2006 – Pell championed for Sydney to host World Youth Day in 2008.
- 2007 – Pell was appointed to the Council of Cardinals, specialising in the Organisational and Economic Problems of the Holy See.
- 2013 – Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to a group of eight cardinals to advise on the government of the universal church and study plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution of Roman Curia.
- 2013 – Pell submitted to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations in Melbourne.
- February 2014 – Pell was appointed as the Prefect for Secretariat for the Economy.
- March 2014 – Pell submitted evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney. This was in relation to the legal case of John Ellis.
- August 2014 – Pell made a second appearance in the Royal Commission via video link from the Vatican regarding the Melbourne Response.
- 2016 – Pell appeared in the Royal Commission to discuss the church’s handling of child abuse allegations in the Ballarat Diocese and Melbourne Archdiocese. Many victims of sexual abuse flew to Rome to hear Pell give evidence. Pell had refused to fly back to Australia to face the Royal Commission. He claimed he had a heart condition and would be putting his life at risk to travel.
- 29 June 2017 – Pell was charged with historical child sex offences.
- 7 July 2017 – Pell arrived in Australia to face the Melbourne Court.
- 18 July 2017 – Pell appeared in Melbourne’s Magistrate Court.
- October 2017 – Pell faced the court for a committal hearing date to be set.
- 14 March 2018 – The committal hearing was reopened to the public and media after eight days of evidence in closed court.
- 29 March 2018 – The committal hearing closed after four weeks.
- 1 May 2018 – Magistrate Belinda Wallington ordered Pell to stand trial over multiple sexual offence allegations.
- 9 May 2018 – Sydney’s Catholic Archdiocese ran ads in the Catholic Weekly requesting donations to fund Pell’s legal costs.
- 15 August 2018 – The trial started, and due to a suppression order applied on the 15th of May, journalists were unable to report on the case.
- 13 September 2018 – The jury heard the final directions from Judge Peter Kidd after hearing the final evidence.
- 19 – 20th September 2018 – Jurors were unable to find a unanimous or majority verdict. Judge Peter Kidd declared a mistrial.
- 7 November 2018 – A new jury was empanelled.
- 6 December 2018 – The jury retired to deliberate.
- 11 December 2018 – The jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict. Pell was charged with one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child.
- 26 February 2019 – The media suppression order was been lifted from the case after charges were dropped from a second case involving an indecent assault on two boys in a Ballarat swimming pool.
- 13 March 2019 – Pell’s sentencing hearing was recorded and live-streamed. He was sentenced to six years of jail time with a non-parole jail period of three years and eight months.
- August 2019 – The Court of Appeal issued its ruling, which upheld the conviction. His appeal failed, and he was sent back to Melbourne Assessment Prison. His appeal was dismissed 2 to 1.
- September 2019 – One month after his failed appeal, Pell was granted one final chance in the High Court of Australia. This was a special leave application with the High Court.
- March 2020 – After a two-day hearing in Canberra, the full bench of the High Court reserves its decision about whether to grant special leave to appeal.
- April 2020 – The High Court unanimously overturned Pell’s conviction, and he was released from prison. This concluded the legal process in Australia, and pending any civil claims, this will be the last time Pell will have to face the court.
- October 2020 – In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions, Pell was granted an exemption to fly back to Rome. He claimed he was on “special Vatican business”. He was assisting Pope Francis with the ongoing financial scandals at the Vatican. This angered thousands of people stranded in Australia, away from their friends and families.
- December 2020 – Pell released a jailhouse memoir called Prison Journal: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal. He talks about the humiliation of strip searches but also the preferential treatment he received in solitary confinement.
- 10 January 2023 – Cardinal George Pell passed away at the Salvator Mundi International Hospital in Rome, Italy.
George Pell was accused of child sexual abuse, concealing child abuse, and setting up flawed survivor support programs designed to re-traumatise the victims. How much did he really know?
Over the years, Pell was accused of a wide range of crimes, from child sexual abuse to concealing the criminal behaviour of paedophile priests. His survivor support programs were labelled as ineffective and re-traumatising. In 2020, the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, planned to scrap the Melbourne Response and ensure the new survivor support scheme has a state-wide approach rather than having the Melbourne Archdiocese “go it alone” with its own separate process.
This also included a nationally uniform approach and consistent guidelines for survivor support.
The real question is how much Pell really knew about the sexual abuse going on in the schools and organisations he was involved with and if he realised how damaging the Melbourne Response and Towards Healing Programs really were.
If one thing is certain, it’s that Pell had many fingers in many pies.
He was everywhere at once and held many positions across various Dioceses.
He consulted with paedophile enablers like Frank Little and Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. He was a friend to Australia’s most prolific paedophile, Gerald Ridsdale, and even escorted him to the trial.
It is hard to accept that Pell was unaware of the horrific abuses occurring within his own Archdiocese. It is also hard to believe a man with the intellect and ego of Pell could be ignorant of the horrors being committed by people he once lived with.
There is no doubt many survivors were disappointed by Pell’s acquittal. However, we are here to support all survivors of child abuse and help achieve a more desirable result, no matter the perpetrator.
Get the justice you deserve with Kelso Lawyers. We want to hear your story. Call (02) 4907 4200 or complete the online form before you accept payment from the National Redress Scheme.
Image: The Catholic Register