The Cardinal, the Courts and the Controversies

By Barney Zwartz
The Age
September 4, 2020

This is a book of mixed merits, good in parts but requiring perseverance to reach them through tediously exhaustive accounts of Cardinal George Pellís progress through the justice system on historical sexual abuse charges. Guardian reporter Melissa Davey takes us through the committal, mistrial, retrial, unsuccessful Supreme Court appeal and High Court acquittal.

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Melbourne County Court for sentencing in February 2019. His conviction was later overturned on appeal by the High Court of Australia.

It would have helped readers if Davey had set out what she was trying to achieve at the start. She does not do so until page 391, at the end of the book. There she says that, so far as she knows, she is the only journalist who covered the Royal Commission and all Pellís trials and she wants readers to have the evidence, as much as possible, before they leap to judgment about his guilt or innocence Ė a matter on which she wisely gives no opinion. And she wants to set it in the context of wider research into child sexual abuse.

She certainly succeeds in the first aim, and up to a point in the second which, given how deeply the trials are etched into the public record, strikes me as the more important. I would have liked more on this and less of the evidence because, although Davey cites some interesting research, it comes across as a little perfunctory. In the hands of someone like the vastly more experienced David Marr, who has also written extensively on Pell for The Guardian and elsewhere, deeper questions might have been explored more widely.

Reading the early chapters about legal proceedings, I had the unworthy feeling that Davey, having sat through week after week of evidence in trial after trial that she could not report because it was suppressed, wanted to share the suffering. Those wanting this level of detail could simply go the trial transcripts.

As someone who has written about Pell, off and on, for nearly two decades, I was also unimpressed at Davey inserting herself into the narrative when she was upset at the extent and intensity of the hostility she got from readers who felt Pell was suffering trial by media.

Iíve had plenty of that too, but never thought it worth writing about. Daveyís narrative is full of Davey: how she felt when she first saw Pell barrister Robert Richter, when she strolled the streets of Ballarat, the obstacles placed in the way of journalists, the fact that she is an atheist. This last is utterly irrelevant; it matters only whether she is an accurate and perceptive observer (I think so).

But, that said, journalists being part of the narrative is a matter of taste Ė fashions change, and younger journalists are far more likely to inject themselves into the story than my generation. At least Daveyís personal interpolations provided a contrast to the recitation of evidence.

Further, Davey has a minor weakness for cliches. For example, in the literally thousands of articles I read about Pell since he was charged, he was almost never reported as merely denying the charges. He vehemently denied them. And sure enough, there it is at first mention on page 3 (and again on p347).

But The Case of George Pell gets better as it goes on, and Davey gradually draws the various strands into a coherent narrative. Accounts of the legal proceedings are interspersed with chapters on Pellís appearance before the child sexual abuse Royal Commission, responses to the trials, and broader discussions about victims and abusers. Ironically, perhaps, the most important sections are the ones in which Pell does not appear, such as the chapters on victims and perpetrators.

Davey understandably found herself considerably irked by culture warriors who rushed to defend Pell and proclaim he could not possibly be guilty despite not hearing a word of evidence. These were the usual suspects, mostly in News Corp, such as Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, and Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor Greg Craven.

Davey observes that Craven lambasted a combined media effort to systematically blacken Pellís name without mentioning that he himself provided character references for Pell, or acknowledging the large number of Pell defenders in the media. His blatant bias led to a revolt among many of his university staff, Davey reports. Bolt, who Davey says never set foot in the courtroom, nevertheless managed to determine that the jury was motivated purely by prejudice.

Many people have been obsessed with the Pell trials. They will find this book has many strengths, including a general objectivity and careful reporting. Yet I canít help feeling it could have been much more.

Barney Zwartz was religion editor of The Age from 2002 to 2013.








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