It was easy, at least intellectually, to defend Cardinal George Pell in the face of the ludicrous criminal child-abuse charges he faced and which have now been so decisively dismissed by the High Court. However, when the un-redacted final three reports, formerly suppressed, of the Royal Commission into the Response of Cardinal George Pell to Abuse Within the Catholic Church were made public (read them here, here and here) things became more problematical for the Cardinal’s supporters. Several critical “findings” were made against him, albeit conclusions based on the commissioners’ collective surmise about what, in their opinion, the Cardinal should have known. This gave his persecutors a much-needed morale boost after the utter humiliation of the 7-0 decision before the nation’s highest court.
See what I did in the paragraph above? How many of you said ‘Hey, wait a minute, the Royal Commission was not into just the Catholic Church, but all churches plus a number of other institutions’? In this forum most, probably all, would have spotted my misrepresentation. But had this piece had been published in The Age, The Guardian or even lately The Australian, how many would have even noticed? As far as the general public is concerned, fed scraps by a lynch-mob media, there is no ‘abuse’ game in town other than Pell and the Catholic Church.
Even with VicPol, two Supreme Court judges and the likes of David Marr whipping up the lynch mob, they still couldn’t nail down the lid on the coffin of George Pell’s reputation. Now that he is dead, the false charges and misrepresentations are getting a fresh airing — and, as Peter O’Brien notes, they were lies then and lies now
David Marr, writing in The Guardian , went harrumphing to his keyboard to make the most of the formerly excised sections:
With its last findings made public, it’s clear that no senior figure in any church who gave evidence to the commission has emerged as damaged as Pell.
Tolling through those hitherto secret pages is the underlying verdict of the commission: that Pell might have, but did not, take action to protect the children of the Catholic community he served as a priest in Ballarat and bishop in Melbourne.
Marr has long been a critic of Pell and was one of the baying mob‘s cheerleaders as the target of their hatred endured the humiliation of imprisonment and the addition of his name to the sex offenders’ register. The ABC regular no doubt enjoyed that schadenfreude moment. But his premise, like much else of his anti-Pell/anti-Catholic commentaries, was false.
Notwithstanding the above, and on the basis that nothing I say will convince the Pell haters to cast aside, or even question, the findings of the Royal Commission, I propose to present my case on the assumption that the Royal Commission was correct in its findings about Cardinal Pell – although I will, from time to time, take issue with certain of its assumptions. For the most part, for the purposes of this essay, I will not contest the findings of the Royal Commission. Others, Gerard Henderson for one, are doing this better than I.
Cardinal Pell’s Career
To set the scene let me outline Cardinal Pell’s career, which effectively covers three phases. Following his ordination in Rome in 1966 he studied in Italy and the UK, returning to Australia in 1971.
The diocese of Ballarat – during the period 1971 to 1984 he did pastoral work as parish priest or administrator at Swan Hill, East Ballarat and Bungaree. During this time he also carried out some other duties such as Episcopal Vicar for Education (1973–84), director of the Aquinas campus of the Institute of Catholic Education (1974–84) and principal of the Institute of Catholic Education (1981–84). From 1895 to 1987 he served as seminary rector of his alma mater, Corpus Christi College. During his period in the Ballarat Diocese, Bishop Ronald Mulkeans presided over the Diocese. In 1977, he became one of a group of advisors, known as the College of Consultors, to Bishop Mulkearns.
Archdiocese of Melbourne — in March 1987 Pell was consecrated as an Auxiliary Bishop under Archbishop Frank Little. He served as Bishop for the Southern Region of Melbourne (1987–96). During this time, he was a parish priest in Mentone.
He was named seventh Archbishop of Melbourne on 16 July 1996 and was later appointed eighth Archbishop of Sydney on 26 March 2001.
In July 1996 he instigated the Melbourne Response, the first formalized process in the world for providing compensation for victims of clerical sexual abuse.
Archdiocese of Sydney — In 2001, he became Archbishop of Sydney. In 2003 he was elevated to Cardinal and in 2014 he was appointed first prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy.
The Royal Commission Report
The Royal Comission Report comprises many volumes and is thousands of pages long. The part of the Report which I will be examining covers two case studies that examine offences in the Diocese of Ballarat and the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Ballarat: The Royal Commission, in Case Study 28, considered the crimes of four priests (Monsignor John Day, Fr Gerald Ridsdale, Fr Paul David Ryan and Fr Robert Claffey) and five Christian Brothers (Br Leo Fitzgerald, Brother BWX, Br Stephen Farrell, Br Edward Dowlan and Br Peter Toomey).
Cardinal Pell’s involvement in the mismanagement of the Christian Brother offenders was peripheral and primarily concerned with Dowlan.
Dowlan: With regard to the cases of the five Christian Brothers, Father Pell was involved with only one of them – Brother Dowlan. As a Christian Brother, Dowlan was the responsibility of the Congregation of the Christian Brothers, specifically the St Patrick’s Province of that Congregation covering Victoria and Tasmania. He did not come under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of the Diocese of Ballarat.
The first reports against Dowlan emerged in the early 1970s when he was a teacher at St Partrick’s College in Ballarat. The Royal Commission summarized this period (1973- 1975) thus:
We have found that Brother Nangle received complaints about Dowlan sexually abusing boys from Mr Barlow, a member of the SRC at St Patrick’s College; Mr Holloway, a lay teacher at St Patrick’s College; and Mr Claassen, a student of St Patrick’s College, and his mother. This evidence makes it implausible that Brother Nangle, as he told us, did not hear any rumours or allegations of child sexual abuse in relation to Dowlan until the mid-1990s. We are satisfied that there was no effective response to any of those reports or complaints in order to manage the risk to children posed by Dowlan. Brother Nangle consistently and unreasonably declined to obtain the details of such reports and complaint
To cut a long story short, from that time until 1993, as many more complaints emerged, Dowlan was transferred to at least five other schools, under the direction of various Provincials, Brs Nagle, Chappell and Noonan. He was finally charged in 1996.
Here is how The Age reported the Commission’s finding on this matter:
Pell dismissed Dowlan complaint
The royal commission accepted the evidence of Timothy Green that in 1974 he tried to bring concerns about paedophile Brother Edward “Ted” Dowlan to Cardinal Pell and was met with resistance. The commission found Cardinal Pell said words to the effect of, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and walked away.
What is not disclosed here is that Pell said he did not recall this incident and did not accept that it had occurred. The report also notes that the surviving witness of two gave evidence that he did not recall the incident. Here is the statement by Mr Green:
Father Pell came in to the change room and said something like ‘G’day boys’ and went and stood behind us and started getting changed. Then I just said something like, ‘We’ve got to do something about what’s going on at St Pat’s’. Father Pell said, ‘Yes, what do you mean?’ I said, ‘Brother Dowlan is touching little boys’. Father Pell said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ and walked out.
Even allowing that he could not be expected to remember his exact words, the phrasing of this conversation strikes me as extremely implausible, coming from a 12-year-old boy. Would a 12 year old boy see himself as part of the response to Dowlan’s offending? Would he refer to Dowlan ‘touching little boys’, when he himself was a little boy? Would he not say ‘touching us’? Nonetheless, based on what I would consider very arcane reasoning, the Commission simply rejected Cardinal Pell’s version and accepted that of Mr Green. From the report:
When asked if he accepted that Mr Green spoke to him in about 1974 about Dowlan, Cardinal Pell said:
Pell: No, I don’t. I have no such recollection of such a dialogue.
Question: But it may have happened? …
Pell: I have no recollection that it happened. I’m certainly not suggesting that Mr Green is telling lies, but I am suggesting that I have no such recollection.
Subsequently, Pell’s counsel challenged elements of Mr Green’s account and it seems the Commission took this as a tacit admission that the conversation did, in fact take place. And this is at odds with an earlier incident wherein Pell did, in fact, report what he had heard about Dowlan. From the Final Report:
Father Pell’s knowledge about Dowlan in the early 1970s
In the early 1970s, Cardinal Pell was told by one or two students, and one or two priests, about Dowlan’s infractions of a sexual nature with minors. We accept that Cardinal Pell concluded at the time that Dowlan must, at the very least, have been unwise and imprudent.
Cardinal Pell told the chaplain at St Patrick’s College, Father Brendan Davey, about the rumours he had heard about Dowlan. We accept that Father Davey told him there were problems and that the Christian Brothers were looking into it. It is not known what Father Davey did with the information that Cardinal Pell provided to him.
Cardinal Pell did not tell Brother Nangle or Bishop Mulkearns about what he had heard.
It was a reasonable assumption on Father Pell’s part that, having advised the chaplain of rumours he had heard and been assured they were being looked into by the Brothers, that he had discharged his duty on this matter. And if Father Pell had been prepared to take seriously accusations against Dowlan in the early 70s, why would he so casually dismiss Mr Green’s claim in 1974?
Given that Dowlan was not in the same ‘chain of command’ as Father Pell, and that Dowlan was so badly mismanaged over the following 20 years, Father Pell’s contribution to this particular scandal appears miniscule.
Where Father Pell was involved more closely with child abuse offences was within the priesthood and the most notorious of these was Father Gerald Ridsdale. From the Report:
Following his ordination in 1961, Ridsdale held 16 different appointments over a period of 29 years as a priest. His appointments were typically short. He spent an average of about 1.8 years per appointment, after which he was transferred to a new role or location. Ridsdale’s appointments were discussed at no less than 18 meetings of the College of Consultors. The frequency with which Ridsdale was moved from appointment to appointment was unusual. Cardinal Pell told us the practice with assistant priests in those days was to give them a variety of experiences over a three-year period. However, he acknowledged that the frequency of Ridsdale’s transfers was somewhat unusual, and he presumed the pattern of movements would give rise to discussion.
In March 1976, following complaints at his previous parish, Ridsdale was given a temporary appointment as a parish priest at Edenhope. Father Pell became a member of the College of Consultors in 1977. He attended his first meeting in July 1977 and one of the agenda items was to confirm Ridsdale’s appointment at Edenhope. Presumably this was done because no complaints against Ridsdale had emerged in the previous 18 months, so there could be no suggestion that, on this occasion, Father Pell conspired with Bishop Mulkearns and the five other consultors at that meeting to transfer a paedophile priest in order to cover up his crimes.
Of course, Ridsdale did offend again and eventually complaints emerged. In September 1979, he resigned as parish priest of Edenhope and was granted a year of study leave at the National Pastoral Institute in Elsternwick, Victoria. This leave was approved by the College of Consultors, presided over by Bishop Mulkearns and attended by six consultors, including Father Pell. So while this move was occasioned by Ridsdale’s offending, it might be said that removal from a parish and to a course of study was a more benign outcome than just shunting him off to another parish.
On January 16, 1981, the College of Consultors met again, following which Bishop Mulkearns appointed Ridsdale to the Parish of Mortlake. Father Pell was not at this meeting. From the Report:
During his time at Mortlake parish, Ridsdale sexually abused a large number of children, including Mr David Ridsdale, BPS, BPT, BPW, BPU, BPX, BPR and Mr Paul Levey.
Many years later, Ridsdale himself described his behaviour at Mortlake as ‘out of control’. He said he ‘went haywire there. Altar boys mainly. They came over to the presbytery’. Ridsdale told CCI interviewers in 1993 that ‘it was no secret around Mortlake eventually about me and my behaviour; there was talk all around the place. Amongst the children and one lot of parents came to me’.
In his evidence to us, Ridsdale said he did not remember this and he did not know why he said it. He said he did not know how he came to hear about the talk around Mortlake about his offending.1399 There was also evidence that Bishop Mulkearns and other senior priests in the Diocese received numerous reports of Ridsdale sexually offending against children.
The Church parties acknowledged that in 1981 and 1982 Bishop Mulkearns either received or learned of numerous reports or complaints about Ridsdale at Mortlake. They also acknowledged that, at least by August 1982, reports or allegations about Ridsdale in Mortlake had been made to Monsignor Fiscalini, Sister McGrath, Father Finnigan and Father Nolan.
Things eventually got so bad that Ridsdale himself asked Bishop Mulkearns to remove him from the parish. The College of Consultors (Mulkearns presiding and six members, including Father Pell) met on September 14, 1982, and were advised that negotiations were underway to transfer Ridsdale to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney. Again, in the admittedly distorted logic of Bishop Mulkearns and his acolytes, this could be seen as a relatively benign move, as Ridsdale would not have had ready access to children. At least that was the theory.
This move was formalised at a Consultors meeting on September 30 at which Father Pell was not present.
Ridsdale remained in NSW, offending all the while, until 1986, when he was appointed to the Parish of Horsham. Father Pell did not attend the Consultors meeting at which this was decided. In April 1988 Ridsdale resigned from Horsham, again as a result of his activities. He would be charged, eventually, in 1993.
By this time Father Pell was now Bishop Pell and had nothing further to do with the case of Gerald Ridsdale. So his part in facilitating Ridsdale’s career of crime was, as one of at least seven other priests, to:
1/ Confirm Ridsdale’s appointment at Edenhope — an appointment made before he became a consultor
2/ Approve a year of study leave at the NPI, removing Ridsdale from close proximity to children
3/ Approve his transfer to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney — a position once more that did not involve contact with children.
Of course, the Royal Commission rightly condemns these moves as totally wrong. The Church should have dispensed with Ridsdale’s services long before Father Pell became a consultor. During Ridsdale’s ‘career’, in relation to his transfers, Bishop Mulkearns was advised by no fewer than 23 consultors, some of whom were Monsignors and one of whom (other than Pell) eventually became a Bishop.
The decisions about Ridsdale were made by Bishop Mulkearns, and his strategy was to protect the reputation of the Church at all costs. He regarded these abuses as moral failings, offences against God, that could be forgiven by God. If he gave any thought to the effect they might have on the victims, it was not sufficient to interfere with his paramount aim of protecting the Church. It seems this mindset was prevalent throughout the Church. It must have become clear to all his consultors that nothing would persuade him from this course, and presumably, they just went along with it. There were many of them, Monsignor Fiscalini (long-term member of the College of Consultors) for example, who knew much more than Pell did. None of them claimed to have offered even a token resistance or objection to Mulkern’s strategy.
We now come to the Diocese of Melbourne, where Pell served initially as Auxiliary Bishop, and the case of Father Peter Searson. Archbishop Little was the senior player here and he seems to have had exactly the same modus operandi as Bishop Mulkearns. Here is Searson’s potted history from the Report:
Father Peter Searson was born in 1923 and was ordained as a priest in 1962.
Prior to his ordination, he spent almost 20 years as a member of the Marist Brothers – a Catholic religious order. Father Searson held the following relevant appointments in the Archdiocese:
# chaplain to the Villa Maria Society for the Blind (January 1974 – June 1977)
# parish priest, Sunbury, Victoria (June 1977 – January 1984)
# parish priest, Holy Family Parish, Doveton, Victoria (January 1984 – March 1997).
Father Searson was the subject of many complaints over the years, mostly in relation to his conduct at Doveton and Sunbury. In addition to some complaints of child sexual abuse, other complaints were made about his unpleasant, strange, aggressive and violent conduct.
Archbishop Pell placed Father Searson on administrative leave in March 1997.
Following the release of the unredacted report The Age reported:
Pell failed to report Father Searson
The commission found Cardinal Pell should have advised senior Catholic authorities to remove paedophile priest Father Peter Searson – an “unstable and disturbed individual” – in 1989.
“We found that he should have advised the archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so,” the commission said.
A private complaint about Searson had been made to Archbishop Little, and ignored, as early as 1974 but it was not until 1982 that the complaints started to multiply and they covered, a varierty of bizarre behaviour, not just sexual abuse. His performance was monitored and discussed by the Personnel Advisory Board (PAB), comprising roughly ten clerics including two bishops.
In December 1983, Searson requested to be transferred out of Sunbury and was relocated to Doveton. More offences occurred at his new posting and these were the subject of discussion at a number of meetings of the PAB. The Report notes:
Some time after the PAB meeting, Archbishop Little had a discussion with Father Searson. Following that discussion, on 17 November 1986, Archbishop Little wrote to Father Searson and said:
Although in our conversation you generally dismissed that long litany of allegations carefully garnered to convey an adequate spectrum of opinion, there still remains in the minds of many people perceptions which continue to contribute, I suspect, to the loss of your good name among upright and serious-minded parishioners and, supposedly in a good number, even of aversion to you; circumstances to this stage would lead me to believe that these factors will be unlikely to come to an end.
You will appreciate that such a situation offers valid grounds for a Parish Priest to consider offering his resignation.
Regretfully I must in conscience present that aspect for your consideration.
Father Searson did not offer to resign; Archbishop Little did not make him. The matters known to Archbishop Little by the end of 1986 were undoubtedly sufficient to demonstrate that Father Searson ought to be removed from a parish appointment and posed a grave risk to the safety of children. By not removing Father Searson, Archbishop Little abjectly failed to protect the safety and wellbeing of the children within the parish.
Up to this point, Bishop Pell had nothing to do with the case of Searson. From the Report:
On 20 November 1989 Bishop Pell met with a delegation of staff from Holy Family School, together with Mr Lalor, the CEO chairperson for the primary staff group, and a representative of the staff union, Mr Palmer. The meeting was convened to discuss the concerns of staff about Father Searson.
The list of grievances included a number of matters regarding the poor state of upkeep of the school, as well as the following:
# Harassment of Staff and Parents
# Harassment of individuals around the school premises.
# Accusing individual staff of disloyalty without cause.
# Confronting of staff on trivial matters before children.
# Small group of children shown dead body in coffin.
# Cruelty to an animal in front of young children.
# Compulsion on children to attend reconciliation on demand.
# Unnecessary use of children’s toilets.
# Harassment of children.
According to a CEO memorandum, the staff’s letter was also discussed with the Vicar General (Monsignor Deakin) and an initial meeting was arranged with officers of the CEO and Father Searson to put the concerns to him.
The initial meeting occurred in August 1989, when Mr Lalor and another person from the CEO met with Father Searson. They had previously met with the school principal, who confirmed that the contents of the letter were correct. They inspected the school building, which they reported to be in an ‘appalling’ state.
During this meeting, Father Searson denied the substance of the allegations. He denied harassing staff. He said it was necessary for him to supervise the boys’ toilets to overcome a graffiti problem. He agreed to work through the issue with the principal to avoid further problems with staff.
Precisely why Bishop Pell, and not Monsignor Deakin, came to receive the November 1989 delegation is unclear. As set out earlier, the Vicar General was ordinarily the channel through which complaints received by the CEO were directed. However, complaints were made to the Auxiliary Bishops from time to time. One such instance occurred not long before the delegation, when Bishop Pell received a complaint from an adult female parishioner.
That was in relation to an incident where she alleged she had been verbally abused and then pushed by Father Searson at Holy Family School, following an argument about nonpayment of her children’s school fees. Bishop Pell had also been in Doveton earlier in November to perform the sacrament of confirmation, which was one of the Auxiliary Bishops’ responsibilities.
The Report devotes a remarkable 14 pages discussing this incident, much of which deals with what Bishop Pell was or was not told in a verbal briefing prior to the seeing the delegation. From the amount of time spent on this issue it seems that the Commission regarded this delegation and Bishop Pell’s handling of it, as pivotal in the case management of Father Searson. Nothing could be further from the truth. All that Cardinal Pell learnt from the delegation was already well known to the Archbishop and the Vicar General. Cardinal Pell testified that he had reported the result of the meeting to Archbishop Little, including the fact that one of the delegation had said that they would be prepared to give Searson a second chance. Little instructed Pell to speak to Searson, which he did. Nonetheless, the Commission found:
Bishop Pell was the Auxiliary Bishop to the Archbishop. He had the capacity and opportunity to urge the Archbishop to take action against Father Searson in order to protect the children of the parish and the Catholic community of his region. Cardinal Pell’s evidence was that he could not recall recommending a particular course of action to the Archbishop. He conceded that, in retrospect, he might have been ‘a bit more pushy’ with all the parties involved. We do not accept any qualification that this conclusion is only appreciable in retrospect. On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989, it ought to have been obvious to him at the time.
He should have advised the Archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so.
The same could be said, with more justification, of the Vicar General, Monsignor Deakin. And it is clear from the passage regarding Bishop Little’s letter to Searson that when, push came to shove, even though he already knew that Searson was unfit for the ministry, he would not take that final step. Pell may or may not have been aware of this but it serves to show that, whether or not Pell had recommended Searson’s removal, it would have made a not jot of difference. And, as noted above, shortly after he became Archbishop of Melbourne and was in a position to do so, he removed Searson from his ministry and ignored a Vatican directive that he be re-instated.
Again, Pell’s involvement in this matter was a sideshow – one meeting in a history of complaints and issues that spanned 30 years.
Cardinal Pell was made a scapegoat. Whether that was the intention of the Royal Commission, I cannot say. But that has certainly been the outcome of the almost obsessive examination of the actions and recollections of a man whose direct involvement in the management of these offenders was minimal at best. The blame falls squarely and overwhelmingly at the feet of Bishop Mulkearns, Archbishop Little and various Provincials of the Christian Brothers. Contrary to natural justice, and contrasted with the treatment meted out to Cardinal Pell by the pack-hunting media, these men are not today the objects of infamy and rebuke that they should be.
There has been a suggestion that Victoria Police are re-examining the Report to ascertain if new criminal charges can be brought against Cardinal Pell. This they have refused to confirm or deny. There are no grounds for charging Pell with any crime unless they also to choose to charge a multitude of other surviving clerics. But given the disgraceful state of Premier Daniel Andrew’s police force, I suspect they will draw this out as long as they possibly can.
At a pinch you might argue that Cardinal Pell showed a lack of moral courage in failing to vigorously protest the decisions of Bishops Mulkearns and Little (forgive me for playing Devil’s Advocatee here) but you cannot claim that his actions contributed materially to the furtherance of the crimes of Dowlan, Ridsdale or Searson. And, of course, Pell had nothing whatsoever to do with offences other than in Victoria.
As the oft-purported evil genius of child sexual abuse in the Australian Catholic Church, Cardinal Pell is pretty poor casting.
- James Franklin