Chip Le Grand
Victorian Chief Reporter
Victoria Police have searched church records kept by a parish in Melbourne’s west as part of an investigation into sex-abuse claims against cardinal George Pell dating back 55 years.
Father Rene Ramirez, whose Maidstone patch includes the old Braybrook parish, confirmed to The Weekend Australian that a police detective visited his presbytery late last year to inspect surviving documents from the 1960s.
The search relates to an allegation first made against Cardinal Pell 16 years ago, when a former Braybrook altar boy accused Australia’s most senior Catholic of repeatedly molesting him at a church-run holiday camp at Phillip Island in either 1961 or 1962.
Cardinal Pell, nicknamed “Big George’’ by boys at the camp, was at the time a teenage seminarian at Corpus Christi College in Werribee, southwest of Melbourne. The allegation was examined and not upheld after a church disciplinary hearing before retired Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell.
The confidential hearing was conducted over five days in November 2002, with witnesses providing evidence under oath. An unpublished transcript of the proceeding has been made available to Victoria Police’s Sano taskforce, responsible for investigating historic and new claims of institutional child abuse.
In a finely balanced judgment, Mr Southwell found the complainant “gave the impression that he was speaking honestly from an actual recollection’’ but he weighed against this the historic nature of the allegations, “valid criticisms’’ of the complainant’s credibility, a lack of corroborative evidence and Cardinal Pell’s sworn denials.
“I find I am not satisfied that the complaint has been established,’’ the retired judge concluded.
The former altar boy who made the allegation, now a 67-year-old retired unionist and waterside worker who battled alcohol addiction and spent time in prison for drug offences, does not resile from his story about what happened at the summer camp.
However, when contacted by The Weekend Australian this week, he said he had not spoken to police and had no interest in reviving his claims against Cardinal Pell, who will provide further testimony to the child abuse royal commission from Rome next week.
It is understood that a focus of the police investigation is tracking down other former altar boys who attended the camp. About 42 boys attended from the Braybrook parish in 1961 and more the following year. Father Ramirez, who recently joined the Maidstone parish from The Philippines, said many Braybrook records from that period had been destroyed in a fire.
The potentially most important witness, a former altar boy and friend of the complainant named Michael Foley, died in a bar fight 17 years before the Southwell hearing. The complainant told the hearing that Foley was also molested by Cardinal Pell at the camp.
Another former altar boy, referred to as Mr Fitzgerald, told the hearing Foley warned him at the camp to “watch out for big George”. Mr Southwell called Mr Fitzgerald a “patently honest witness’’ and accepted his evidence, against the objections of Cardinal Pell’s barrister Jeff Sher QC.
Cardinal Pell, in a pre-emptive statement issued last Friday as the Herald Sun newspaper was preparing to publish details of a Sano taskforce investigation into multiple abuse claims against him, repeatedly described the Phillip Island allegations as false.
“The Southwell report which exonerated Cardinal Pell has been in the public domain since 2002,’’ a statement released by Cardinal Pell’s office reads.
“The Victorian police have taken no steps in all of that time to pursue the false allegations made, however, the cardinal certainly has no objection to them reviewing the materials that led Justice Southwell to exonerate him. The cardinal is certain that the police will quickly reach the conclusion that the allegations are false.’’
Mr Southwell’s 15-page judgment makes no finding that the allegations were false.
A lawyer involved in the 2002 hearing yesterday said the complainant presented as sincere.
“The complainant might have been mistaken, and he was testing his memory from a long way back, but he wasn’t making it up,’’ he said.
The character of the complainant came under sustained attack before and during the in-camera hearing, with supporters of the then Sydney archbishop leaking details of his criminal history to journalists.
Despite the complainant’s history as an illegal bookmaker, Painters and Dockers organiser and convicted criminal who served two years in jail for trafficking amphetamines, Mr Southwell did not believe he was a liar.
He at no point sought any form of payment from the church and despite “extensive inquiries’’ made on behalf of Cardinal Pell, no evidence of an ulterior motive was uncovered.
He confided in his wife in the mid-1970s about the alleged Phillip Island abuse, telling her he had been interfered with by “a big bastard called George’’.
The church became aware of the allegation 25 years later, after the complainant told his story to victims support group Broken Rites. The church referred the complaint to its national committee for professional standards. Due to the seriousness of the allegations, Mr Southwell applied a standard of proof comparable to that used in criminal trials.
Mr Sher told the hearing that an adverse finding “would be nothing short of disastrous’’ for Cardinal Pell and the church.