CARDINAL GEORGE PELL
(Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, 2014-2019)
George Pell AC (born 8 June 1941) is an Australian cardinal of the Catholic Church. He served as the inaugural prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy between 2014 and 2019, and was a member of the Council of Cardinal Advisers between 2013 and 2018. Ordained a priest in 1966 and bishop in 1987, he was made a cardinal in 2003. Pell served as the eighth Archbishop of Sydney (2001–2014), the seventh Archbishop of Melbourne (1996–2001) and an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne (1987–1996). He has also been an author, columnist and public speaker. Since 1996, Pell has maintained a high public profile on a wide range of issues, while retaining an adherence to Catholic orthodoxy.
Pell worked as a priest in rural Victoria and in Melbourne and also chaired the aid organisation Caritas Australia (part of Caritas Internationalis) from 1988 to 1997. He was appointed as a delegate to the Australian Constitutional Convention in 1998, received the Centenary Medal from the Australian government in 2003 and was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2005. During his tenure as Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell set up the “Melbourne Response” protocol in 1996 to investigate and deal with complaints of child sexual abuse in the archdiocese. The protocol was the first of its kind in the world but has been subjected to a variety of criticisms.
Pell in 2018 was found guilty of various sexual offences: the convictions were later quashed by the High Court of Australia in 2020. A separate investigation by the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into these allegations of abuse concluded upon his acquittal by the High Court.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed its findings on Pell in 2020 and found that he knew of child sexual abuse by clergy by the 1970s but did not take adequate action to address it. Pell said he was “surprised” and that the commission’s views “are not supported by evidence”.
Secretariat for the Economy
In February 2014, Pell was appointed to be the first prefect of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy. In this role, Pell is responsible for the annual budget of the Holy See and the Vatican. In July 2014 Pell, with the consent of Pope Francis, had the Ordinary Section of Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) transferred to the Secretariat for the Economy to enable the Secretariat to exercise economic control and vigilance over the agencies of the Holy See. It was also announced that remaining staff of APSA would begin to focus exclusively on its role as a treasury for the Holy See and the Vatican City State.
Following the confirmation of the mission of the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR – also known as the Vatican Bank) by the Pope on 7 April 2014, the IOR announced plans for the next stage of development. The Council of Cardinal Advisers, the Secretariat for the Economy, the Supervisory Commission of Cardinals, and the current IOR Board of Superintendence agreed that this plan will be carried out by a new executive team led by Jean-Baptiste de Franssu.
Pell was appointed a member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples on 13 September 2014. In November 2014, the Secretariat for the Economy distributed a new handbook to all Vatican offices outlining financial management policies that would go into effect on 1 January 2015. The manual was endorsed by the Council for the Economy and approved by the Pope. “The purpose of the manual is very simple,” said Pell, “it brings Financial Management practices in line with international standards and will help all Entities and Administrations of the Holy See and the Vatican City State prepare financial reports in a consistent and transparent manner.” In 2015, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio questioned the scope of the authority given to the Secretariat and to Pell himself, specifically the consolidation of management and not the demand for transparency.
On 12 December 2018, the Vatican announced that Pell was one of three “more elderly” cardinals who were to leave the Pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisers after a five-year term. The three were also thanked by the Pope for their service. On 24 February 2019, his five-year term as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy expired.
Vatican investigation of sexual abuse charges
Immediately following Pell’s initial conviction for sexual abuse in February 2019, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) initiated its own investigation of the charges against him, but the Vatican also said the CDF would await a “definitive judgment” from the Australian courts in the case. The Pope reaffirmed at that time that Pell was “forbidden to exercise public ministry and … from having contact in any way or form with minors”, restrictions that had been in place since Pell’s return to Australia in July 2017. When Pell’s conviction was upheld in August 2019, the Vatican again said its review would wait for Pell to exhaust his appeals. When Pell’s convictions were quashed in April 2020, a Vatican spokesperson said that ruling would contribute to the CDF’s investigation which would “draw its conclusions on the basis of the norms of canon law”. The CDF’s investigations concluded upon Pell’s acquittal by the High Court.
Allegations of child sexual abuse
In June 2002, a Melbourne man named Phil Scott accused Pell of sexually abusing him at a Catholic youth camp in 1961, when the accuser was 12 years old and Pell was a young seminarian. Pell denied the accusations and stood aside while the inquiry continued. The complainant agreed to pursue his allegations through the church’s own process for dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, the National Committee for Professional Standards. Retired Victorian Supreme Court Justice Alec Southwell, appointed commissioner by the church to investigate the matter, found that the complainant, despite his long criminal record, had mostly given the impression of speaking honestly from actual recollection but concluded as follows: “bearing in mind the forensic difficulties of the defence 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'”. Pell said he had been exonerated, while the complainant’s solicitor said his client had been vindicated.
Victoria Police investigations
In March 2013, Victoria Police launched Operation Tethering to investigate whether Pell had committed unreported crimes. On 20 February 2016, the Herald Sun newspaper reported that Pell had been under investigation for the past year by detectives from the Victoria Police SANO Taskforce over sexual abuse allegations involving between five and ten boys that occurred between 1978 and 2001 when he was a priest in Ballarat and when he was archbishop of Melbourne. His office issued a statement denying the allegations, and asked for an inquiry into the leaking of information by Victoria Police officers. Victoria Police remained silent on whether Pell was being investigated. The SANO Taskforce was established in 2012 to investigate allegations arising from the Victorian Government Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations and the subsequent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
On 28 July 2016, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton, confirmed that there was an investigation into alleged child sexual abuse by Pell, and stated he was awaiting advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). On 17 August 2016, Victoria Police said a response had been received from the DPP, but would not disclose the DPP’s recommendations.
In October 2016, three Victoria Police officers from the SANO Task Force flew to Rome to interview Pell, who participated voluntarily, regarding allegations of sexual assault. In February 2017, Victoria Police advised that the brief of evidence against Pell had been returned to the Office of Public Prosecutions. That Office subsequently provided advice to Victoria Police in May 2017.
Trial, conviction, and acquittal
Initial charges and hearings
On 29 June 2017, Victoria Police announced they were charging Pell with a series of sexual assault offences with several counts and several victims. At a press conference in Rome, Pell denied the allegations. Pell left the Vatican in July and voluntarily returned to Australia to face trial. Details of the charges were not made public.
On 26 July 2017 Pell appeared at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court and entered a plea of not guilty. He was represented by barrister Robert Richter. An application by the media seeking public disclosure of the details of the charges was refused by the magistrate. At a procedural hearing in November Pell’s lawyers requested documents from ABC News journalist Louise Milligan and Melbourne University Press relating to Milligan’s book Cardinal: the Rise and Fall of George Pell which was published in early 2017.
In January 2018, accuser Damian Dignan died after a long illness. Dignan’s charge was withdrawn. Pell’s lawyers requested but were denied the personal medical information of the complainants. Pell’s defence was reported to be based on questioning the timing of allegations. Some other charges were dropped after a complainant was ruled medically unfit to give evidence.
The committal hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to commit Pell to stand trial commenced on 5 March 2018. The hearing allowed for approximately fifty witnesses to give evidence, including former choirboys. The magistrate allowed Pell’s barrister to cross-examine all but five witnesses. Pell’s barrister said the allegations involving St Patrick’s Cathedral were impossible.
Magistrate Belinda Wallington concluded that there was enough evidence for the case to proceed on about half of the charges. On 1 May 2018, Pell was committed to stand trial on several charges of sexual offending. Pell entered pleas of not guilty. As a bail condition, Pell was not permitted to leave Australia.
On 2 May 2018, Pell appeared in the County Court of Victoria for a directions hearing before Judge Sue Pullen, and it was agreed that he would undergo two separate trials with two separate juries and that the charges would be heard separately for each trial. He was to be tried in relation to allegations of sexual offences taking place at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1990 in the first case (the cathedral trial), and in relation to further allegations taking place at a Ballarat swimming pool in the 1970s in the second case (the swimmers trial). Prosecutors sought a media ban on reporting on the trials until the verdict in the second trial. A suppression order was subsequently issued by Chief Judge Peter Kidd on 25 June 2018. The purpose of the order was to prevent prejudice to Pell caused by jurors in the swimmers trial knowing the outcome of the cathedral trial.
Pell’s first trial for the allegations of misconduct in St Patrick’s Cathedral began in August 2018 under Chief Judge Kidd with representation by Robert Richter (lawyer). However, it ended with the jury unable to reach a unanimous verdict. This necessitated a retrial, with another jury. A retrial was conducted, again under Chief Judge Kidd. On 11 December 2018, Pell was convicted on five counts of child sexual abuse of two boys in the 1990s.
Australian media outlets generally respected the suppression order preventing publication of details on the cathedral trial whereas international news sources reported the conviction. The Melbourne-based Herald Sun posted on its front page “CENSORED” in large print in protest of the ban, noting that international sources were reporting on a “very important story that is relevant to Victorians”. In a statement made to The Washington Post, Noah Shachtman, editor-in-chief of the online news magazine The Daily Beast, consulted with American and Australian lawyers, but ultimately considered it an “easy call” to report on the conviction, though he did place geo-blocking restrictions to prevent online access to the story from Australia. More than 140 international news reports were published within 24 hours. Pell’s barrister informed Chief Judge Kidd that the guilty verdict was accessible on Wikipedia.
Swimmers trial: prosecution withdraws its case
At the time of Pell’s conviction in the cathedral trial, a second trial was pending regarding unrelated allegations that he sexually assaulted two boys while throwing them in the air in a Ballarat swimming pool in the late 1970s. These allegations had been raised by the ABC, leading to a Victoria Police investigation; however, Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions dropped the charges after Chief Judge Kidd on 22 February 2019 disallowed the prosecution’s submission of evidence from complainants on the grounds that each piece of evidence was not sufficient. News of Pell’s conviction was published in Australia on 26 February 2019 when the suppression order was lifted following the withdrawal.
Cathedral trial sentencing
At a pre-sentencing hearing on 27 February 2019, Pell’s bail was revoked and he was taken into custody at the Melbourne Assessment Prison. Pell’s lawyers released a statement that Pell maintained his innocence, and advised that an appeal had been filed on three grounds.
The sentencing hearing on 13 March 2019 was broadcast live to the public, with Chief Judge Kidd sentencing Pell to serve six years in jail with a non-parole period of three years and eight months. Pell was also registered as a sex offender. Pell served 404 days in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, before being acquitted.
Breach of suppression order by media
In the Supreme Court on 26 March 2019, Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions named 36 media outlets, journalists and broadcasters and applied that they be found guilty, convicted and either imprisoned or fined for breaching the suppression order. International media did not face charges.
The Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Victoria heard pleadings for Pell being granted leave to appeal simultaneously with the appeal itself in June 2019. Pell was represented by Bret Walker SC. Three grounds of appeal were lodged: that the verdict was unreasonable, that permission to use in their closing address a visual aid prepared by the defence that illustrated the locations of people within the cathedral around the time of the first assault had been refused, and that Pell had not been arraigned in the presence of the jury as is required under standard criminal procedures in Victoria. Judgment was reserved, without setting a date to deliver the decision.
On 21 August 2019, the Court of Appeal issued its ruling, which upheld the convictions. The three-judge panel comprised Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Chris Maxwell and Justice Mark Weinberg. On the first ground of appeal, that the verdict was unreasonable, the court granted leave to appeal but dismissed the appeal by a majority (2–1) decision. Chief Justice Ferguson and President Maxwell dismissed the appeal. Ferguson stated that, for the appeal to succeed, the court needed to find that the jury must have had doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, not merely that they could have had doubt. Justice Weinberg issued a dissenting judgment and would have allowed the appeal on the first ground.
Whilst Chief Justice Ferguson and President Maxwell stated that they did not experience a doubt in the case, the dissenting Judge, Mark Weinberg, likened the case to that of Lindy Chamberlain, which had seen wrongful conviction by a jury and appeal court based on faulty evidence. Weinberg wrote that the applicant should be acquitted on each charge.
The court unanimously refused leave to appeal on the second and third grounds.
In September 2019, Pell sought special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia, the final court of appeal in Australia. Pell’s lawyers submitted that Pell’s conviction should be overturned on the basis that, in the face of exculpatory evidence, the Court of Appeal had relied on their belief in the complainant to eliminate doubt and uphold the conviction. The prosecution submission asserted that the appeal judgement had glossed over evidence that supported his conviction. The appeal was heard on 11 and 12 March 2020 by a full bench of seven justices.
On 7 April 2020, in a unanimous judgment, the High Court allowed the appeal, quashing Pell’s convictions and determining that judgments of acquittal be entered in their place. The court found that the jury ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt. The court agreed with Weinberg’s judgment in the Court of Appeal, finding that the majority might have effectively reversed the burden of proof. In their judgment, the judges said with respect to all five charges that, “Making full allowance for the advantages enjoyed by the jury, there is a significant possibility … that an innocent person has been convicted.”