In 2002, Pell faced his first public allegation of child sexual abuse. In June, a man filed a formal complaint with the National Committee of Professional Standards, the church's abuse watchdog group. He said that Pell had molested him in 1961, when the accuser was 12 and Pell was a 19- or 20-year-old seminarian. Denying the allegation, Pell stood aside for several months as Sydney archbishop, while the church asked former Supreme Court judge Alex Southwell to investigate. Southwell's report said accuser "gave the impression he was speaking honestly" but crime could not be established.
Pell named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
Police in the Australian state of Victoria established Taskforce SANO in 2012 to follow up on criminal complaints of child sexual abuse emerging from the Victorian parliament's Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations.
Victoria police launched an investigation named Operation Tethering to find possible "unreported serious crimes" committed by Pell. The existence of the probe first was made public on March 28, 2018, when Pell's counsel interviewed Victoria police detectives during the final week of Pell's committal hearing.
By the time the Victorian Parliament's Inquiry concluded in 2013, the national government had launched a broader inquiry, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. Taskforce SANO remained active to handle criminal complaints resulting from the Royal Commission's probe.
Pell appointed by Pope Francis to head Vatican's new Secretariat of the Economy.
A man contacted the Victoria Police alleging that he had been sexually assaulted as a young teenage choirboy at Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1996, shortly after Pell became Melbourne archbishop.
Taskforce SANO asked the public to contact them with any information about child sex crimes at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne between 1996 and 2001. This was the exact tenure of Pell's role as archbishop of Melbourne, during which time the Cathedral was his parish, seat of power and focus of activities.
Victoria Police detectives testified at Pell's committal hearing in March 2018 that they had planned to arrest Pell in December 2015 and hold him for questioning, had he returned to Australia as scheduled to testify to the Royal Commission. Pell however did not return home: he gave his testimony from Rome via video-link in February 2016.
Victoria Police issued a public appeal in local Ballarat news outlets "for information in relation to allegations of sexual assault at the Eureka Stockade Pool, Ballarat East in the late 1970s. The male victims were aged eight years old at the time of the alleged incidents." During the late 1970s, Pell was a priest at St. Alipius parish in Ballarat, serving as diocesan vicar for education.
On February 19, one week before Pell was scheduled to give evidence to the Royal Commission from Rome, the Herald Sun broke the news that Victoria Police were investigating multiple complaints that Pell himself had abused minors. The alleged incidents took place when Pell was a priest in Ballarat and archbishop of Melbourne and involved abuse of five to ten boys, now ranging in age from their late 20's to early 50's. The Herald Sun cited "legal sources" who described the alleged crimes as involving "both grooming and opportunity."
Pell responded immediately. A statement from his office called the accusations "without foundation and utterly false." He accused Victoria Police of leaking the information in an attempt to embarrass him: "The Cardinal has called for a public inquiry into the leaking of these spurious claims by elements in the Victoria Police in a manner clearly designed to embarrass the Cardinal, in a case study where the historical failures of the Victoria Police have been the subject of substantial evidence."
As part of its Ballarat probe, Victoria Police contacted "Bernie," a 50-ish man who grew up in the 1970s in Nazareth House, an orphanage in Ballarat run by the Sisters of Nazareth. Bernie submitted a sworn statement describing molestations in a swimming pool and shower by then-Father Pell. The allegations by Bernie and another former Nazareth House resident, Peter Clarke, were first made public in April 2020, when the men appeared on an ABC-TV "Revelation" program. See: Two new accusers say George Pell abused them when they were boys in the 1970s, by Sarah Ferguson, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, April 2, 2020.
On July 28, Victoria Police confirmed an ongoing investigation of alleged sexual abuses by Pell. In an email to The New York Times, a police spokesperson said, "Detectives are investigating allegations of historical sexual assaults committed in Ballarat East between 1976 and 1980 and East Melbourne between 1996 and 2001.” The email said the evidence had been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions for advice, but that "as with any investigation, it remains a decision for Victoria police as to whether charges will be laid."
The police statement was prompted by a special TV report aired by Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Its program 7:30 revealed details about the police investigation. (See the program transcript.) ABC reporter Louise Milligan said she had obtained the information from "eight police statements from complainants, witnesses and family members who are helping the taskforce [SANO] with their investigation."
The file included allegations that Pell fondled the genitals and anuses of two boys in a Ballarat pool in 1978-1979, when he was the Ballarat diocese's vicar of education. Another police statement accused Pell of exposing himself to three boys in the dressing room of a surf club in 1986-1987. Yet another allegation involved the unspecified abuse of two teen choirboys in the late 1990s. The alleged abuse occurred at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne when Pell was Melbourne archbishop and after he had established the Melbourne Response.
The 7:30 program also revisited an allegation against Pell that had received extensive media coverage 14 years earlier. In 2002, when Pell was archbishop of Sydney, a man reported that he had been molested by Pell at a summer camp in the early 1960s. The complainant was 12 at the time and Pell was a 20-year-old seminarian. Pell denied the claim at the time but stood aside as Sydney archbishop, while the church asked former Supreme Court judge Alex Southwell to investigate. Southwell's report said that the accuser "gave the impression he was speaking honestly" but the crime could not be established.
Pell replied swiftly to the 7:30 program, "emphatically and unequivocally" rejecting the allegations, calling them "totally untrue" and accusing ABC of a "scandalous smear campaign." In a second statement, Pell again urged an inquiry of the Victoria police, accusing them of leaking reports to the ABC. Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton denied that the police had leaked information to ABC.
Police flew to Rome to interview Pell about the allegations.
Also in October, The Australian revealed that Pell had sought the help of barrister Robert Richter QC, considered widely to be the country's most formidable criminal defense attorney.
Pell's spokesperson reiterated the cardinal's "complete and utter rejection" of all allegations and announced that Pell was "considering legal action against those organisations promoting these calumnies.’
The police sent their brief of evidence to the Department of Public Prosecutions for a second time, again seeking a recommendation whether to charge Pell or drop the investigation. According to The Australian, "Sending a second brief to the DPP is significant because it comes after extensive investigations that arose after the first brief was sent back to police by prosecutors, leaving it up to the force to decide whether any charges would be laid."
The police heard back from the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Herald Sun reported, "It is understood that Victoria’s DPP has advised police that based on its assessment of the evidence they can charge the Cardinal. But despite the green light, the DPP advice makes it clear that ultimately it is up to police whether to act."
Also in May, Melbourne University Press published a book by ABC reporter Louise Milligan. In Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, Milligan provided details of various allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by Pell that had been reported to Taskforce SANO. Pell called the book "an exercise in character assassination" and "a blatant attempt to interfere in the course of justice." The book included detailed accounts of:
-- allegations by two men that Pell had fondled their genitals while playing a game with them in a Eureka [Ballarat] municipal swimming pool during the summer of 1978-1979. The alleged victims were young boys at the time, and Pell was a priest for the Ballarat diocese, living at St. Alipius. Their allegations were summarized in the ABC's July 2016 7.30 program on Pell and the related article by Milligan and Andy Burns: George Pell: The swimming pool allegations.
-- another Eureka pool allegation that had not been reported previously. According to Milligan, the complainant contacted her after the 7.30 program on Pell in July 2016. He was age 12 or 13 in roughly 1976 when Pell allegedly fondled his groin and anus underwater while they were playing in the pool. Milligan wrote that she was the first person he had told. She said she directed him to Taskforce SANO. See related excerpt from Milligan's book.
-- an allegation that Pell had exposed himself to young boys in the summer of 1986-1987. Pell and the boys were in a changing room at a surf club near Torquay Beach, also in the state of Victoria. Milligan interviewed a Torquay resident, Les Tyack, who says he witnessed the alleged incident. It would have occurred when Pell was a priest of the Melbourne archdiocese; he was promoted to auxiliary bishop of Melbourne a short time later, in March 1987. Tyack was interviewed by Milligan in ABC's 7.30 program on Pell in July 2016. See also her related article from July 2016: George Pell: The surf club allegation.
-- allegations that in 1997, when Pell was archbishop of Melbourne, he forced two 13-year-old choirboys at the archdiocese's St. Patrick's Cathedral to perform oral sex. See related excerpt from Milligan's book. See also related article: Cardinal George Pell Accused of Sexually Abusing Two Choirboys, Book Claims.
On June 28, Victoria police spokesperson Shane Patton announced that Pell would be charged [see text and video]. He said that the charges involved "historical sexual assault offenses," that there were "multiple charges" and "multiple complainants relating to those charges." He gave no detail about the number, nature or timing of the alleged crimes.
After the charges against Pell were announced, Melbourne University Press pulled Milligan's book from Victoria bookstores, presumably to avoid prejudicing a jury.
Pell replied from the Vatican on June 29, reading a statement to reporters at the Holy See Press Office. He said that the accusations were false and that he had been subject to "relentless character assassination." He added, "News of these charges strengthens my resolve, and court proceedings now offer me the opportunity to clear my name and then return here, back to Rome, to work."
On June 30, The Australian stated definitively, without identifying a source: "Charges will include alleged-offending in the Ballarat suburb of Sebastopol, 120km west of Melbourne, between January 1, 1973, and August 22, 1976."
On July 26, George Pell appeared in Melbourne Magistrates Court for the filing of the charges against him. The hearing lasted less than ten minutes and revealed no information about the charges. Pell's lawyer, Robert Richter, said that while no formal plea was required at this stage, he wished to indicate that Pell would be pleading not guilty. Pell did not speak.
At the hearing, the chief prosecutor reminded the news media that the legal period of "sub judice" (Latin for "under judgment") had begun and that reporters failing to observe it would be held in contempt of court. Under Australian law, once a person is charged, the news media is severely limited as to what they can publish. Reporting of the allegations against Pell, for instance -- even information that previously had been reported -- was legally prohibited throughout the trial. (See more.) Critics said the court-ordered secrecy violated the public's right to know. "Old timers round the Melbourne courts can’t remember the last time the public was left so much in the dark before a great criminal trial," wrote journalist David Marr.
Pell returned to court on October 6 for another brief administrative hearing, called a "committal mention." It was established that around 50 witnesses would testify in a four-week period in March 2018, at the final pre-trial phase, called the "committal hearing." Richter, Pell's attorney, stated that "what was alleged is impossible."
The purpose of the committal hearing is for the magistrate to "hear evidence of the prosecution and decide whether a properly instructed jury would convict the accused." If so, the case of Director of Public Prosecutions v. G Pell is sent to county court, the next higher jurisdiction in Australia's judicial system, and proceeds to trial.
On January 6, Damian Dignan died of leukemia. He was one of Pell's chief accusers, alleging that Pell had touched his genitals repeatedly during horseplay in a municipal swimming pool in the 1970s, when Dignan was age eight and Pell a priest in Ballarat. Dignan appeared in ABC's pivotal 7:30 program in July 2016, and an extensive account of his alleged abuse by Pell appeared in ABC reporter Louise Milligan's book, Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, published in May 2017.
On March 2, prosecutors dropped one charge against Pell because the accuser (presumably Damian Dignan) had died.
Pell's committal hearing began on March 5. The courtroom was closed to reporters for the first ten days, as alleged abuse victims testified via video-link.
The hearing was opened to the public (including the news media) from March 14 until its conclusion on March 29.
Key news coverage during the public portion of the committal hearing, March 14-29, 2018:
George Pell's barrister accuses witness of trying to 'big-note' himself, by Melissa Davey, The Guardian (March 14, 2018)
Cardinal Pell's lawyer accused father of alleged victim of 'inventing' allegation, by Melissa Davey, The Guardian (March 14, 2018)
George Pell committal: Complainant came forward after seeing cardinal on TV, by Emma Younger, ABC News Online (March 19, 2018)
Cardinal George Pell accused of sex assault during 'Close Encounters', by Melissa Cunningham, Sydney Morning Herald (March 19, 2018)
George Pell hearing told new allegations against cardinal have been made to police, by Melissa Davey, The Guardian (March 20, 2018)
Cardinal George Pell committal: ABC journalist Louise Milligan ordered to transcribe notes for court, by Emma Younger, ABC News Online (March 21, 2018)
Cardinal George Pell: court told archbishop robes could not be easily removed, by Melissa Davey, The Guardian (March 22, 2018)
George Pell committal: A number of charges to be dropped, prosecutor says, ABC News Online (March 23, 2018)
Cardinal George Pell case: Alleged inappropriate conduct occurred in public pool, court hears, by James Hancock, ABC News Online (March 23, 2018)
Cardinal Pell ‘exposed himself’ claims accuser, news.com.au (March 24, 2018)
George Pell committal: ABC journalist accused of trying to 'poison the public's mind' against him, by Emma Younger, ABC News Online (March 27, 2018)
George Pell hearing: ABC journalist defends sources in book about cardinal, by Melissa Davey, The Guardian (March 27, 2018)
Police accused of 'get Pell' focus, 9News (March 28, 2018)
Australian court to decide whether Cardinal Pell Faces trial, by Adam Baidawi, The New York Times (March 28, 2018)
Police were poised to arrest Pell after he gave evidence at royal commission, by Melissa Cunningham, The Age (March 28, 2018)
George Pell committal: Police accused of 'single-mindedly' pursuing charges, court told, by Emma Younger (March 28, 2018)
On May 1, a Victorian magistrate dismissed several of the charges against Pell but ruled that the remaining evidence warranted a trial. The court agreed to the request by Pell's counsel and by prosecutors to divide the charges into two trials: the first involving alleged crimes during Pell's tenure as Melbourne archbishop in the latter half of the 1990s, and the second involving alleged abuses during his early priesthood in Ballarat in the 1970s.
In September, Pell’s trial for the late 1990s sexual assaults of the two 13-year-old choirboys, referred to as J and R by the court, ended in a hung jury. (According to some reports, this first jury voted 10-2 in favor of acquittal.)
On December 11, a new jury rendered a unanimous verdict of guilty. Pell was convicted of one charge of sexual penetration of a child under age 16 and of four charges of committing an indecent act with or in the presence of a child under age 16. As detailed in Judge Kidd's Reasons for Sentence, the cardinal was found guilty of perpetrating the crime of sexual penetration on victim J, two indecent acts with J, and one indecent act with R during an encounter with both boys in late 1996, likely December. The fifth charge related to Pell’s groping of J's genitals several weeks later, possibly in February 1997. Both episodes occurred following Pell's celebration of Sunday Solemn Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, when Pell was Melbourne archbishop.
As noted above, J had reported to police in 2015. R, who never reported his abuse and denied to his mother that he had been abused, died of a heroin overdose at age 31 in 2014.
A day after the conviction, the Vatican announced that Pell and two other cardinals had been removed from the Pope's Council of Cardinals two months earlier, in October 2018. Due to a sweeping media suppression order imposed by the court, the conviction was not reported by Australian news media, and it received very limited media coverage outside Australia. Most news reports about Pell's removal from the so-called C9 did not mention his conviction.
On February 26, the court order suppressing media coverage of Pell’s conviction finally was lifted. The removal of the ban was occasioned by prosecutors' decision to drop the second case, involving Pell’s alleged abuses of two young boys in a Ballarat swimming pool in the late 1970s. Coincidentally, the public reporting resumed just two days after the end of Pell's five-year term as Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy.
On March 13, Pell was sentenced to six years in prison, with possibility of parole after three years, eight months. [See Judge Peter Kidd's Reasons for Sentence.]
On June 5 and 6, three appellate judges heard his appeal.
On August 21, the appellate panel announced that Cardinal Pell's conviction would be upheld. [See the Melbourne Court of Appeal's Summary of Judgment and Reasons for Judgment, which includes the dissenting judge's opinion, beginning on page 121.]
In a brief statement, the Vatican "acknowledged" the dismissal of Pell's appeal while noting that "the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence" and that "it is his right to appeal to the High Court." In response to reporters' questions, a spokesperson said the Vatican would await the conclusion of Pell's appeal process before launching a case under canon law.
On November 13, in a one-paragraph ruling, a two-justice High Court panel ordered that Pell's application for appeal be reviewed by the full High Court bench of five or seven justices. The Holy See released a statement reiterating "its trust in the Australian justice system."
On January 3, Pell's defense team filed an appeal document and Chronology with the High Court. Also in early January, Pell was moved to a new prison, after a drone flew over the Melbourne Assessment Prison, where he was incarcerated.
On January 31, the public prosecutor submitted to the High Court a written response to Pell's application for appeal.
On February 19, Pell's counsel submitted its response to additional questions from the court, and on February 20, it filed its reply to the prosecutor's filing of January 31.
The prosecutor responded in a February 26 filing of "further written submissions."
The High Court's full bench of seven justices held its hearing on March 11 and 12, 2020, with Pell's counsel presenting its case first, followed by the prosecutor's argument for retaining the appeal court's ruling. See the 'outlines of oral argument' submitted by Pell's counsel and by Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd.
The High Court then asked for further written submissions from both sides. See the responses submitted by Pell's counsel and by prosecutors.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation's "Revelation" program aired interviews of two men going public for the first time with their stories of alleged sexual molestations by George Pell. The men grew up in the 1970s in a Catholic orphanage, Ballarat's Nazareth House. They said that Pell groped their genitals and anuses in the shower and swimming pool.
On April 7, 2020, the High Court issued its judgment. It unanimously allowed the appeal and "ordered that the convictions be quashed and that verdicts of acquittal be entered in their place." Granting that the jury had assessed the complainant's evidence "as thoroughly credible and reliable," the Court wrote, "the evidence of the opportunity witnesses nonetheless required the jury, acting rationally, to have entertained a reasonable doubt" as to Pell's guilt. Pell was immediately freed from prison. A brief Vatican communique 'welcomed' the High Court decision. It did not say whether it would now launch an internal investigation of the cardinal.
While the High Court ruling ends the criminal case involving the two teen choirboys, it's likely the allegations will be considered again in civil courts. The father of choirboy "R," who died of a heroin dose in 2014, intends to sue Pell. This is expected to be one of several lawsuits that would be resolved in civil courts, where the standard of proof is lower.