Cardinal Pell Faces Charges
Timeline of the Criminal Investigation and Pre-Trial Proceedings, 2013-March 2018
In March 2013, police in the Australian state of Victoria 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.
Victoria Police's first contact with a complainant against Pell occurred in 2015, according to a statement made by one of Pell's lawyers in February 2018.
The jurisdiction of Victoria Police includes two cities where Pell has worked for much of his priesthood -- 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.
A specialized team within Victoria Police called the Taskforce SANO investigated the complaints against Pell. The police 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. 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. Taskforce SANO remained active to handle criminal complaints resulting from the Royal Commission's probe.
- 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.
- In December 2015, 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.
- 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 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, 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 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 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.
- 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 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, 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 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, 2017 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, 2018, 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, 2018, prosecutors dropped one charge against Pell because the accuser (presumably Damian Dignan) had died.
- Pell's committal hearing began on March 5, 2018. 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, 2018 until its conclusion on March 29, 2018.
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)