“Back in those days, they were entitled to think of paedophilia as simply a sin you could repent of,” Cardinal George Pell told The Australian in 2012. As I watched the live broadcast of Judge Peter Kidd’s powerful address on March 13, sentencing Pell to six years imprisonment, or three years and eight months without parole, Pell’s comment kept ringing in my head. I had always associated Pell’s remarks with special pleading for the church’s inaction, turning a blind eye and moving on notorious paedophile priests such as Gerald Ridsdale. Now, after Pell’s conviction, his words suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Had he been speaking about himself?
Peter Kidd’s sentencing address was quite a performance. Wearing his starched white collar and purple robe, the chief judge of the Victorian County Court wasn’t just sentencing George Pell. He was enacting the dignity and power of the rule of law. With sober gravity and measured arguments, he outlined in forensic detail the crimes for which Pell was convicted.
Kidd began by separating himself and his courtroom from the “lynch mob mentality” he condemned “outside of this court and within our community” who sought to punish Pell for the Catholic Church’s record on child sexual abuse. Pell’s sentencing was not, Kidd emphasised, to be seen as vindication for anyone else’s injury at the hands of other priests. It was the man, George Pell, who in being sentenced for his particular crimes was “entitled to the balanced and steady hand of justice”.
What were the crimes? In Victoria, evidence by complainants in sexual cases is heard in private sessions, hence only the judge and jury have been able to hear Pell’s accuser, and assess his credibility. This is why, I think, Kidd outlined in unswerving detail the complainant’s evidence that convinced the jury of Pell’s guilt, beyond all reasonable doubt. As Kidd reconstructed these crimes, the nation heard the unvarnished story for the first time. Although Kidd is obliged to accept the jury’s verdict and sentence accordingly, his remarks did not sound like those of a judge who felt this was an unsafe verdict.
What really happened inside the sacristy at St Patrick’s Cathedral? According to Kidd, it was a “brazen and forcible sexual attack” on two 13-year-old choirboys, known under the pseudonyms R and J. As R had died of a heroin overdose, the case rested on J’s evidence. In Kidd’s account, Pell encountered R and J after they had bunked off following mass and snuck into the sacristy to drink some altar wine. Pell told them they were “in trouble”. They froze. Pell reached under his robes and exposed his penis. He forced R down into a crouching or kneeling position, and forced his penis and genital region into the proximity of R’s face, despite his terror, pleas and struggles to be let go. This conduct Kidd described as “particularly confronting and debasing”. The act had “a nasty element to it”.
Pell turned to the next boy, J, and pushed him down into a similar posture. Pell forced his erect penis into J’s mouth for about two minutes, which Kidd says was “rightly described as an act of violence”. Then: “Additional force was used by you over and above the penetration, in that you grabbed his head and pushed your penis inside his mouth. You held his head down for a period.” Pell told the boy to remove his pants and masturbated himself while fondling the boy’s genitals. “Both victims were visibly and audibly distressed during this offending” – whimpering and crying – causing “an added layer of degradation and humiliation that each of your victims must have felt in knowing that their abuse had been witnessed by the other … You continued to offend, with callous indifference to the victims’ obvious distress and objections … You told your victims to be quiet because they were crying.” About a month later, in a corridor at the cathedral, Pell pushed the boy J against a wall and fondled his genitals through his clothing. This involved “a degree of aggression and venom” and, given what had occurred before, was “by no means a minor indecent act”.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse ushered in a cultural revolution in the way we view sexual abuse of children. It treated survivors with respect, sensitivity and a form of attentive listening rare in public life. For five long years we heard how priests of different faiths, as well as authority figures in other institutions, abused children. The widespread and systematic protection of perpetrators was exposed. If before the royal commission survivors who came forward to tell their stories were routinely disbelieved, many now were publicly heard and vindicated for the very first time.
This new sensibility, however, is now being undermined by the steady chorus of opinion from former prime ministers and conservative commentators – normally respecters of institutions such as the jury system – casting doubt on the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. None of them heard the complainant’s evidence. When commentators claimed there was no witness to corroborate it – there very rarely is in cases of child sexual abuse – they were effectively saying the man was lying. The real victim, they declared, was not the former choirboy but George Pell. The real criminal was not Pell but the politically correct, anti-Catholic mafia of police and the media. “Our media demands a scapegoat,” Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian in March, pointing to Victoria Police’s alleged “anti-Catholic bias” in bringing the case against Cardinal Pell. This represented the “poisoning of our culture”. In reality, the royal commission exposed the pro-Catholic bias of those in Victoria Police who over many years were involved in cover-ups. The culture led to Mildura policeman Denis Ryan losing his job for trying to bring the dreadful paedophile, Monsignor John Day, to justice.
Judge Kidd repeatedly warned the jury that they were not there to prosecute the Catholic Church for its failings. The Pell apologists asserted that a lynch mob mentality had influenced the jury. “For the lynch mob, priests are guilty until proven innocent”, ran one headline in The Daily Telegraph. “Are these Catholic priests victims of a frenzy to convict?” posed the headline of Andrew Bolt’s column in the Herald Sun. In another column, Miranda Devine wrote: “I don’t believe that Pell, who I know slightly and admire greatly, could be guilty of sexually assaulting two choir boys in a busy cathedral after Sunday Mass …” On the basis of her slight personal knowledge of the Cardinal, and in the absence of the complainant’s evidence, Devine declared Pell innocent. Even conservative Catholic lawyers such as Greg Craven, a long-time supporter of the jury system, declared that Pell’s conviction shows “that the justice system can be systematically assaulted from the outside in a conscious attempt to make a fair trial impossible”.
The Pell defenders were suddenly experts on paedophilia, asserting authoritatively that since his crimes did not involve grooming, they did not happen. In reality, sexual abuse of children can involve grooming or sudden, opportunistic violence, as was the case at St Patrick’s. Stephen Woods sought help from Gerald Ridsdale at the Catholic Cathedral Presbytery in Ballarat, after enduring sexual abuse at the notorious St Alipius Primary School. “Straight away he started molesting me,” Woods says. “He took me to a toilet at Lake Wendouree and raped me.” Ridsdale often groomed victims, but this was a sudden, brutal, opportunistic attack. All the allegations in Louise Milligan’s book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell involve opportunistic offences, where Pell had no prior close relationship to the boys.
Pell’s defenders were also suddenly authorities on just how many people usually mill around the sacristy. On the one hand, they cast doubt on how the two boys could have entered this sacrosanct space, so private, so utterly off limits. On the other, the corridor was as busy as Flinders Street in rush hour. Could the offences have occurred, Bolt asked rhetorically, in the “normally busy sacristy … despite knowing the door was open and anyone could enter at any moment?”
Well, yes. Judge Kidd told Pell that he “offended in a risky and brazen manner”. Such brazen conduct was not at all uncommon in the evidence before the royal commission. Paul Gray, a survivor of Newcastle Anglican paedophile Peter Rushton, was frequently forced to perform oral sex in church while his abuser was in full clerical robes. It was part of the power trip. On one occasion, a woman did enter the vestry, witnessed what was happening, but simply left.
Kidd’s interpretation of Pell’s knowledge of his power is similar. The judge rejected defence counsel Robert Richter’s claim that Pell would have to have been “mad”, “not in his right mind” to “engage in this conduct … with the door open and with people nearby …” Pell, argues Kidd, had just come from mass and so presumably knew people’s movements. He was either “sufficiently confident” no one would walk in on them, or “may have subjectively believed that, had this occurred, you could control the situation by reason of your authority as archbishop”. If this was “extraordinarily arrogant” so was “… the offending which the jury has found you have engaged in … in any view, breathtakingly arrogant”.
Kidd highlighted the terrible disparity of power between the choirboys, who were the “least powerful and most subordinate individuals at the cathedral”, which was “hierarchical, structured, and subject to strict discipline”, and the archbishop, who was at the very apex. “The power imbalance … was stark.” That cruel imbalance often continued in the courts. The royal commission heard many cases of a vulnerable, damaged person being savaged in court by an expensive, high-powered barrister hired by churches generous in their defence of perpetrators but miserly with victim compensation.
Robert Richter is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant barristers of his generation. However, as early as the committal hearing in March 2018, I wondered if his flamboyant, aggressive style meant he was the right person for the job. On the very first day, Richter made a significant gaffe. When prosecutor Mark Gibson requested a support animal be made available for complainants (a new and compassionate measure in the courts for emotionally fragile witnesses), Richter mocked: “I thought dogs were only for children and old people.” His joke fell flat. The magistrate, Belinda Wallington, replied icily, “No, they’re also there for vulnerable and traumatised people.” This bad-taste joke made me wonder if, out of step with the new mood around child sexual abuse, Richter might alienate a jury. His tone was commensurate with the comments he later made – and apologised publicly for – describing the oral rape and other offences for which Pell had been convicted, as of the “plain vanilla” sexual kind. Kidd dealt with this claim particularly harshly.
Listening to Kidd, I remembered another comment of Pell’s in 2013: “Many in the church did not understand just what damage was being done to the victims.” The denialism and backlash that has accompanied Pell’s guilty verdict suggests many still don’t.
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