Gail Furness, SC: the tough barrister skewering Pell in Rome

By Liz Burke
March 2, 2016

Gail Furness, SC. The tough and accomplished barrister putting the screws to Cardinal George Pell in Rome.

Cardinal George Pell has been squirming on the stand facing questions from Senior Counsel assisting the commission

Ms Furness has declared much of Pell’s testimony as implausible and extraordinary.

Clergy victims, front by spokesman David Ridsdale, have been disappointed by Pell’s evidence.
Photo by Ella Pellegrini

[with video]

SHE is calm, persistent, and downright terrifying.

The Sydney barrister taking Cardinal George Pell to task at the Royal Commission into child sex abuse has Australians asking: Who is this woman?

Gail Furness, SC, has forced admissions of regret and slammed as “implausible” testimony from Australia’s most senior Catholic as she tirelessly grills him over his knowledge of and failure to protect children suffering abuse within the church.

Her take-no-prisoners approach to questioning and intolerance for evasive answers is causing the Cardinal to squirm on the stand like we’ve never seen before.

While it’s clear the stoic clergyman has met his match, it’s not the first time the pair have come face to face.

Ms Furness has cross-examined Pell twice before in her role as counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse since it was formed in 2012.

She played a big part in getting the major inquiry off the ground, advising commissioners on how to tackle the broad terms of reference it takes in.

In the two and a half years since taking on the monster task, Ms Furness has travelled around Australia hearing the horror stories of thousands of survivors and grilling those involved in the abuse and its cover-up.

Prior to being appointed to the royal commission, the Sydney silk heard similarly horrific testimony while assisting top commissioner Justice James Wood in the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW in 2008.

She was well qualified for these roles. Since being admitted to the NSW Bar in 1997 and being made a senior counsel in 2010, Ms Furness has been appointed to high profile inquiries including the inquiry into the Star Casino in Sydney and the special inquiry into Campbelltown and Camden Hospitals.

During those controversial inquiries, and in her five-year stint at the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Ms Furness has come up against public scrutiny before.

She was publicly labelled a “goose” by staff of someone on the other side of her tough questioning during the casino inquiry. This elicited a fervent defence from then premier Barry O’Farrell. She was also forced to defend her earnings for work in the same controversial inquiry.

But it’s only been this week that the tough barrister has just about become a household name.

Grilling Pell via video link from Rome, in front of damaged victims of abuse within the church, Ms Furness’s cross-examination has drawn audible gasps from the hearing room and fist pumps from viewers of the inquiry’s live stream.

On the second day of questioning, her questioning drew a shocking admission from Pell over his knowledge of abuse perpetrated by one of Australia’s worst convicted paedophile priests, Father Gerald Ridsdale.

“It was a sad story; it wasn’t of much interest to me,” Pell was forced to admit.

After dodging direct questions with ambiguous answers for almost three full sessions of questioning, Pell was slammed by Ms Furness yesterday for providing an “implausible” and “extraordinary” testimony, and attempting to distance himself from historical abuse.

“Cardinal, I have to suggest to you that your evidence in relation to not being briefed properly or adequately by the Catholic Education Office and the reasons for that are completely implausible,” she said.

Pell replied insisting he was telling the truth regarding knowledge of accusations made against priest Peter Searson, claiming “the whole story” was “implausible”.

“I suggest, Cardinal, that the evidence you have given has been designed to deflect blame from you,” Ms Furness fired back.

Ms Furness’s powerful performance has earnt her “rock star” status on social media.

On Facebook, one viewer noticed Ms Furness, “the woman of the group”, was the only one seriously grilling Pell, “and it’s f***ing awesome”, she said.

Others claiming to be victims of institutional child sex abuse said they felt “greatly represented” by the capable questioner.

“Gail Furness, I hope and believe, is the counsel that will finally bring down this monster’s house of cards,” another viewer, Grant Graham, wrote.

“She is so well prepared for all his evasions it seems … Go Gail Go.”

Pell has this morning arrived at the Quirinale Hotel in Rome for his last night of giving evidence by video link to the commission sitting in Sydney.

He is expected to face a six-hour grilling during his fourth day on the stand where he will face questioning from sex abuse victims’ lawyers, as well as counsel assisting the royal commission, Ms Furness.

Grab the popcorn and strap yourself in. This is going to be a masterclass in tough cross-examination.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.