Cardinal George Pell is one of the most notorious paedophile priests in Australia.
He’s the highest ranking Catholic official to be convicted of child sexual abuse and his case has been covered in-depth in the media.
For good reason.
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.
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, 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, 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.
Pell said he was doing a “public service” with the Melbourne Response Protocol – a statement which 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 which 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, 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, 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 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.
Pell must have been sweating under the collar – because 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 must have been telling – in June 2018, the Victorian Police charged Pell with child sexual abuse of several victims.
However, Pell was confident about the trial. He used his influence in the media to mock his victims.
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 mater 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 Pell in court. Most of them were former choirboys and Pell’s lawyer cross-examined all but five witnesses. Afterwards, 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 sentencing 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.
Pell got what he deserved.
He wore a convincing mask in the media. There had been rumours and whispers of child sexual abuse over the years, but he used his charm and manipulative personality to skirt around the issue.
To think he sat before the commissioners in 2013 and 2014 with a straight face. He didn’t even break a sweat.
Did he think of his victims when he gave evidence?
Did he feel relieved knowing the investigation wasn’t about him?
One can only wonder what was going through his mind.
At Kelso Lawyers, we’re committed to supporting and representing victims of child sexual abuse. Offenders like Cardinal George Pell can’t be allowed to breeze through life without punishment.
We’re on your side. We’ll fight with you for justice.