Action Alert!

Catholic World News News Feature

Case Closed December 27, 2002

Archbishop George Pell of Sydney, one of the highest-profile Church leaders in the English-speaking world, has been cleared of extraordinary allegations of sexual abuse against an 11-year-old altar boy at a seaside holiday camp over 40 years ago. Archbishop Pell was a 19-year-old seminarian at the time.

The crisis caused him to cancel several overseas speaking engagements, including one invitation from an American think-tank and another to address a New Zealand conference on the family.

The 31-page report of inquiry into the allegations was released on October 14. The Commissioner of the inquiry, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Alec Southwell, concluded:

... bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defense occasioned by the very long delay, some valid criticism of the complainant's credibility, the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent, I find I am not 'satisfied that the complaint has been established,' to quote the words of the principal term of reference.

The allegations, which became public in August, had come hard on the heels of the media "ambush" of Archbishop Pell last June on the Australian 60 Minutes television program (see CWR July 2002). As with the 60 Minutes episode, this latest controversy made the news around the world --although not always in accurate presentations.

An exception was David Quinn, editor of The Irish Catholic, who commented: "If, or rather when, Archbishop Pell emerges from this terrible ordeal, the Australian Church may have to reconsider how better to protect its priests against false accusations. It seems a better balance needs to be found between the rights of the priests and the rights of their accusers."

But the BBC, according to Quinn, introduced the story by saying that "another sex scandal has hit the Catholic Church." Such stories, he noted, are "immediately picked up by the international news agencies. The unproven allegations then seep into the crevices and cracks of the body politic worldwide."

ANOTHER AMBUSH? Supporters of Archbishop Pell might have been prompted to view this episode as yet another "ambush" by his enemies. And while evidence of any orchestrated conspiracy is lacking, there are plenty of individuals and groups inside and outside the Catholic Church anxious, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to neuter Archbishop Pells effectiveness as a strong spokesman for Catholic orthodoxy. What better way than an allegation of sexual abuse? However unbelievable the charge, some mud may stick, with the presumption of many in such cases being "guilty until proven innocent." For an outspoken defender of Christian sexual morality, any taint of hypocrisy would be devastating.

Perhaps this episode was more a case of opportunism among the like-minded to harm or hamper the archbishop. The actions of a number of people involved in the present case certainly warrant scrutiny.

The accuser, who had an extensive criminal record, first presented his allegations to the Church in June following the 60 Minutes program, when he claimed he "recognized" the archbishop as the one who abused him 40 years earlier. But it would be over two months before Archbishop Pell heard anything of them. The alleged victim originally phoned Broken Rites--an aggressive (and often anti-Catholic) lobby group for alleged victims of sexual abuse--on May 2, 2000, claiming he had been abused in January 1961 by a student priest at a seaside camp on Phillip Island, about an hours drive from Melbourne. He rang back two years later on June 8, 2002, saying he had recognized Archbishop Pell on the 60 Minutes program as the same individual who had allegedly abused him several times in 1961. He then met with Dr. Bernard Barrett, who helped Broken Rites' clients put together victim-impact statements. There was apparently discussion of a possibly larger payout than the normal $50,000 maximum because Archbishop Pell was involved. Barrett helped the accuser lodge his complaint with the Church and also put him in touch with an Age journalist, Martin Daly, a frequent critic of Archbishop Pell.

The man was also encouraged to take action by Father Bob Maguire, a South Melbourne priest who deals extensively with "street kids," and knew the complainant personally. He helped the accuser contact Sister Angela Ryan, the Melbourne-based executive director of the National Committee for Professional Standards (NCPS) which administers the protocols of Towards Healing, the Australian bishops' policy for dealing with sex-abuse complaints.

The allegations subsequently made their way on August 7 to an Adelaide-based web site, where they were included in a scurrilous article published under the name "Xavier O'Byrne." Archbishop Pell did not learn about the sex-abuse claims until his lawyer, Richard Leder alerted him on August 8. It remains a mystery who was responsible for posting the details on the web site, and mailing or faxing copies of the allegations to selected journalists, lobby groups, and victim-support groups around Australia.

One of the recipients of the article was the Eros Foundation, a Canberra-based lobby group for the sex industry. Its spokesman, John Davey, was also a member of the Rainbow Sash organization, which campaigns for a change in Church teaching on homosexual acts, and had been refused Communion by Archbishop Pell at St. Patricks Cathedral in Melbourne. Another recipient was a reporter with The Age, who submitted a series of questions to Archbishop Pell on the night of August 20. The next day, the archbishop decided to step aside and submit himself to a NCPS inquiry.

One must suspect that the author of the article posted on the internet had direct or indirect contact with either the complainant or someone within the NCPS. The article was clearly intended to do serious damage to the archbishops reputation. Archbishop Pells solicitor wrote two letters to the web site, which were posted there. The first said that the article was "highly defamatory," adding that "Archbishop Pell rejects the allegations entirely." The second argued that the presentation on the web constituted criminal libel.

A DIGNIFIED RESPONSE

In his statement read to the media on the evening of August 21, Archbishop Pell said that "the allegations against me are lies and I deny them totally and utterly." But he recognized he was "not above civil or Church law." He pledged to cooperate with the NCPS committee in every way and announced that he would step aside for the duration of the inquiry for "the good of the Church and to preserve the dignity of the office of archbishop." (Bishop David Cremin, Sydney's vicar general, stood in for the archbishop during the investigation.) There was widespread praise--even from some of his usual critics--of Archbishop Pell's dignified, decisive handling of the matter.

The NCPS appointed a retired judge, Alec Southwell QC, as Commissioner to investigate the complaint and report to the review board set up by Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide. Southwell, who is not a Catholic, was described as a "no-nonsense" man who stuck to the law and did not let his personal views intrude. The hearings took place at Rydges Hotel in Melbourne, with some commission members and witnesses ferried into the hotel through its underground car park and taken to the first floor boardroom, which was set up as a courtroom.

The press coverage over the period up to and during the inquiry was revealing. The politically correct Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald, whose writers have consistently criticized Pell, tended to put a more unfavorable "spin" on their reports, with criticism of leaks about the anonymous complainant's criminal record. One misleading headline in The Age read: "I knew the altar boys, says Pell."

Aged 53, the complainant had used a string of aliases in a criminal career spanning 20 years. An entire chapter in the Costigan royal commission into the corrupt Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union was devoted to him. He visited and warned off several witnesses to that commission, and more than a dozen union members were murdered in the same period. He was convicted 40 times for crimes including drug dealing, violence, and racketeering.

Writers in the Melbourne Herald Sun and Sydney Daily Telegraph (Murdoch papers) tended to be more sympathetic. The day after Archbishop Pell announced he would step aside, Melbourne journalist Andrew Bolt commented in an opinion piece in the Herald Sun: "We used to call them witch--hunts. But witches are so fashion-able now that we prefer priest-hunts instead."

By contrast Chris McGillion, who writes religion columns for the Age and Sydney Morning Herald (and been a consistent critic of Archbishop Pell), wrote: "If the allegations against Pell are proved to be well-founded, the consequences for the Australian church would be devastating. It would bring into question the whole appointment system for bishops." McGillion is a member of the liberal Australian Church organization, Catalyst for Renewal, which regularly criticizes Vatican "centralism" and the appointment of "hard-line" bishops like Pell. Another member of Catalyst for Renewal is Sydney auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, the executive director of NCPS--who knew of the allegations against Archbishop Pell two months before the latter stumbled upon them.

THE CASE COLLAPSES

In the weeks leading up to and during the NCPS inquiry, various pieces of information emerged (or leaked) from inside and outside the inquiry which undermined the credibility of the allegations:

" Three other former altar boys claimed to have been sexually abused at the Phillip Island summer camp by a priest and a church worker-- neither of whom was George Pell. " Several former altar boys and community workers involved with the Phillip Island camp said they remembered George Pell as a man of integrity. A volunteer who worked at the camp said he recalled Pell working there. "George Pell. I remember him very, very well. I drove him and the boys down there. He was a model person--I am absolutely astounded by whats been said about him." " Chris Dixon, who now manages the Phillip Island site, recalls the all-boy camps as "pretty physical encounters ... Kids were kept busy with rosters for every job." He was not aware of scandal or impropriety except for an isolated incident in the late 1960s. " The complainant claimed the sexual abuses were also committed against a friend of his (now deceased). But members of that man's family knew nothing of any allegations against Pell. " Numerous former altar boys from various parishes, their families, priests and church workers were questioned. Many expressed a personal dislike for Pell, but none could recall cases of abuse or even the suspicion of it. Not one witness from the camp could be found to corroborate the complainant's allegation. Over a dozen were asked to testify. " A fellow priest and seminary classmate, Father Gerald Diamond, said that George Pell was "serious and self-disciplined" and recalls that he was chosen in 1962 by the Jesuit Rector at the Corpus Christi seminary as "rhetoricians' [first-year students'] prefect. to guide their progress in self-discipline." Seminarians, he said, were reminded of their responsibilities during holidays not to place themselves in imprudent situations which could serve as "occasions of sin. The camps, recalled Father Diamond, were strictly supervised and the daily program consisted mostly of team sports, leaving little opportunity for private misbehavior. The accusation, he said, "appears totally groundless and reflects behavior totally out of character with Pell."

In a second opinion piece on the inquiry, written after these details began to surface, Andrew Bolt remarked: "Im not surprised X refused to go to the police about Pell, as Church officials had urged. I cant imagine them thinking the case, on this material, was worth prosecuting."

THE VERDICT

Not surprisingly, the Southwell inquiry exonerated Archbishop Pell, almost two months after he had stepped aside as the Archbishop of Sydney. However, newspaper reports the next day tended to play down the significance of the finding in Pells favor, preferring to emphasize the report's finding that the complainant gave the impression of truthfulness. The Age headline stated: "Both sides claim win as Pell cleared." And The Australians read: "Pell sex complaint dismissed, but accuser feels vindicated."

Press reports of the inquiry's finding were far less prominent than the front-page treatment accorded the allegations the previous August--although the news was understandably crowded off the front pages by the simultaneous terrorist attack in Bali, which caused the loss of many Australian lives.

On the afternoon of October 14, following release of the report, Archbishop Pell held a press conference at St Marys Cathedral to respond to its findings. In his media statement, he said: "Im grateful to God that this ordeal is over and that the inquiry has exonerated me of all allegations." He pointed out that Southwell "has gone as far as the terms of reference allow him to go in exonerating me."

The archbishop then indicated that he had faxed Archbishop Philip Wilson, "co-chair with Brother Michael Hill of the Towards Healing process and the appointers of the inquiry," and had given his consent for the public release of the full transcript and exhibits from the investigation.

Regarding the complainant, whose allegations had put him through such a trial, Archbishop Pell said: After a little interval of time, I was able to pray for him. I continue to do so and I bear him no ill will." Asked about the complainant's insistence on his version of events, the archbishop commented:

Its a bit of a mystery to me as to whether these things are the product of a delusion or a violation by somebody else or lies or a combination of all three. But what is important is that the judge did not find that the accounts the complainant gave were truthful and substantially accurate, he did not accept that.

Perhaps the most significant exchange of the press conference occurred when the archbishop was questioned about the mysterious delay of two months before he learned of the allegation. A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald asked: "It appears to be a two-month delay between when the complainant made his statement to Towards Healing, and when you were informed of the complaint. How do you feel about that?"

"I think its remarkable," the archbishop replied. The exchange continued:

In what way?

Well, I think I would have anticipated that I would have been informed earlier than that.

And who are you taking this up with now?

Thatll be one of a number of things that Ill be discussing with those who are in charge of Towards Healing.

Do you think it damaged your case in any way?

It certainly didnt help it.

A television reporter asked the archbishop whether the episode had caused him to make any changes in his long-term plans. He replied: "Well, my long-term plans are to get back to work and to fully recover my equilibrium. But, No."

And another reporter commented that even when a charge is dismissed, "some of the mud sticks." Archbishop Pell replied that in his case that general rule should not apply, since "theres no mud to stick; I've been exonerated."

[AUTHOR ID] Michael Gilchrist is managing editor of the Australian monthly magazine AD2000.