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George Pell and trial by Media

June 4, 2015

George Pell and trial by Media


I have avoided writing much about the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse. Mostly this is because the Royal Commission is still playing out and has not given its findings yet. That being said I cannot ignore a situation that has unfolded in the last few weeks.

How the Royal Commission originated

The Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse was originally set up under the Gillard Labour government. The trigger for the Royal Commission was an interview given to the ABC TV Lateline current affairs program in 2012 by an ex-police detective by the name of Peter Fox. In the program Fox alleged that there was a cover-up by the Catholic Church and senior NSW police officers into child sexual abuse. The sensational claims by Peter Fox, his demand for a Royal Commission and media storm that followed were enough to get him what he wanted.

Only after the Royal commission had run for months did the truth of Peter Fox sensational and explosive claims.

The Commission found Peter Fox to be “an unsatisfactory witness who gave untruthful evidence about both his employer and the Catholic Church

As a result Peter Fox’s credibility as a witness is now in tatters.

Cardinal Pell

Few people in Australia have been subjected to as much hate and derision in the media as Cardinal Pell. Having nailed his colours to orthodox Catholicism Pell attracts enemies from those that oppose his views. Those from the far left of politics see him as reactionary standing against their progress toward a secular future. Even with religious circles his ideological and theological opponents can sometimes be vindictive in their attacks.

The attacks on Pell in the Media have sometimes been so far over the top that they have required written apologies from both Barney Zwartz and Paul Collins over false claims that they had made. Left wing journalist David Marr in his Quarterly Essay called The Prince produced a hatchet job on Cardinal Pell with some of the most over the top sneering he could muster. Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown described the Cardinal as an out of touch ‘Dog Whistler’. The list goes on with some openly accusing Pell of covering up sexual abuse allegations. No evidence or proof is required, because an allegation is enough to convict him in the court of public opinion.

Two things have managed to ramp up the rhetoric in the last couple of weeks:

One is the nephew of the worst paedophile priest in Australia has repeated at Royal Commission an unsubstantiated allegation that Cardinal Pell had tried to bribe him to remain silent about his abuse claims. The second is a specially appointed member of the Vatican’s commission on child protection has accused Cardinal George Pell of being ‘Callous’ and Almost Sociopathic’ toward abuse victims.

The reaction in social media as quick as it was nasty. The Age newspaper facebook site let a headline comment saying ‘Die Pell’ for hours before it was final taken down. The Age (another Fairfax publication) claimed that its own staff would never do such a thing and could only image that the site had been hacked or something. The Paper was later forced to issue an apology to the Cardinal.

The Fairfax news organization has run story after story and editorials that condemn Cardinal Pell in just the last few weeks. Opinion writer for Fairfax, Peter Fitz Simmons, demands that we get ‘Cardinal Pell back to Australia to face the Royal Commission. Fitz Simmons goes on to demand that Pell be stood down from his senior role at the Vatican until allegations are answered.

Not to be left out of the media scrum opposition leader for the Australian Labour Party, Bill Shorten said in an interview: ‘I do believe that George Pell should help the royal commission and if that means coming back to Australia to co-operate with the royal commission he should.’

A minimum amount of fact checking would reveal that Cardinal Pell has already given evidence twice to the Royal Commission, once in person and once by video link. Yet the poor reporting would have us believe that he is purposely trying to hide something. Cardinal Pell reiterated in a statement that rejected all the charges being levelled at him and that he was always willing to co-operate with the Royal Commission.

News Corp writer Gerard Henderson has written recently that go part of the way to explaining why so many people seem to be out to get Pell. In his Media Watch Dog column he takes aim at the willing ignorance of some journalists over Cardinal Pell.


Despite the willingness and enthusiasm of some media reporters there is no evidence that Cardinal Pell has done anything to cover up or protect paedophiles in the Catholic Church. This same kind of media feeding frenzy occurred years ago when George Pell was falsely accused of sexual abuse in Ballarat. Many of his ideological enemies were gleeful in their delight at reporting the potential takedown of Australia’s best known clergy. Form many he deemed guilty before the charges were heard. Unfortunately for the literary lynch mob George Pell was cleared of all charges, not just because there was no evidence but also because he was not even in Ballarat at the time of the alleged incident.

Currently the same kind reporting appears to take gratuitous pleasure in reporting every unsubstantiated allegation as if they require no evidence to be proven.

Finally the Catholic Bishops of Australia have issued a statement in support of cardinal Pell saying that: ‘he is a man of integrity who is committed to the truth and to helping others, particularly those who have been hurt or who are struggling’.

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