Timeline: The Criminal Investigation of Cardinal Pell
- Police in the Australian state of Victoria have been investigating alleged abuse by Cardinal George Pell since at least 2015.
The jurisdiction of Victoria Police includes the cities of Ballarat and Melbourne. Pell was ordained for the diocese of Ballarat in 1966 and served there from 1971 to 1987. He worked in the Melbourne archdiocese, as auxiliary bishop and archbishop, from 1987 to 2001. In 2001, he left Victoria to become archbishop of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales.
The two-year duration of the police investigation was confirmed last month by Pell himself, at the beginning of his June 29 statement declaring his innocence.
A specialized team within the Victoria police called the SANO Task Force has been investigating the complaints against Pell. The police established 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. By the time the Inquiry concluded in November 2013, the national government had launched a broader inquiry, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. SANO has remained active to handle criminal complaints emanating from the Royal Commission's probe.
- In December 2015, the SANO task force 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, where the Cathedral was his parish, seat of power and focus of activities.
- In January 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 8 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, 2016, 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 the 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."
- On July 28, 2016, 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 [SANO] taskforce 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.
- In October 2016, 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.’’
- In February 2017, 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."
- In May 2017, 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 new details of the allegations she had summarized in 7:30's report the previous July.
Pell called the book "an exercise in character assassination" and "a blatant attempt to interfere in the course of justice."
- On June 28, 2017, 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, 2017, 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, 2017, 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, 2017, 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 has been reported -- is now legally prohibited. (See more.)
The commencement of sub judice, combined with the court's decision not to disclose the charges that Pell faces, means that the case is now enshrouded in secrecy - and might be so for years. The Guardian's David Marr writes,
"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. ...The secrecy enveloping the proceedings is a mark of Richter's great skill. No one underestimates this man.
"The word is that Richter will ask for at least three separate trials. They would almost certainly involve continued restrictions on reporting both of the charges and of evidence. It may be 2020 before the full story – either of acquittal or conviction – can be told."
- September 8, 2017 is the date by which prosecutors must submit their file of evidence to Pell's defense team.
- The next court date is October 6, 2017. This will be another short administrative hearing, called a "committal mention," when a date will be set for the committal hearing and the number of witnesses will be clarified.
At the committal hearing, which is not expected to occur until 2018, the magistrate "will 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 will be sent to county court, the next higher jurisdiction in Australia's judicial system, and proceed to trial.