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2023: Vol. 1  •  28 February 2023  •  Society & Culture

Touchy subject: Why the media can’t afford to tread lightly around Pell’s legacy

By Joseph Hathaway-Wilson
Content Warning: Child sexual abuse, substance abuse, suicide
Touchy subject: Why the media can’t afford to tread lightly around Pell’s legacy

The headline of Jennifer King’s obituary to George Pell reads as follows: “Cardinal Pell, Australia’s most powerful Catholic, who was dogged by scandal.” Appearing on The Guardian’s website shortly after the announcement of Pell’s death, the headline promises readers an unflinching examination of Pell’s life and, more importantly, his impact on the lives of others. One can imagine Andrew Bolt’s eyes rolling into his head as he prepares to berate King and the “woke left” for their grotesque vilification of an honest and innocent Christian figurehead. Unfortunately, the strength of the promise is quickly compromised. The obituary’s subheading describes how: “Cardinal was acquitted on appeal of child sexual abuse charges but remained tarnished by his response to paedophile priests over decades.” The compromise here does not concern the factual integrity of the information provided, but exactly what information the journalist chose to provide and in what context.

News media coverage of George Pell’s death saw two key facts battle for a place at the forefront of the late Cardinal’s legacy. The first – and so far pre-eminent – fact is that Pell was convicted of child sexual abuse but had his conviction overturned by the High Court just a year after he was admitted to prison. This fact about Pell’s life has managed to weasel its way in full into the headings, sub-headings and ledes of most articles and obituaries concerning the Cardinal. Perhaps it was the sensational prospect of Pell personally committing such heinous crimes which has allowed the quashed conviction to dominate coverage of his death, even if he was later found to be innocent. The second fact of the matter, as disclosed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, is that Cardinal Pell was aware of his subordinates in the Catholic Church exploiting their powers to commit acts of paedophilia, and that he did not attempt to resolve this. In some instances, as with the now-deceased Peter Searson, Pell failed to take action. In others, such as with the now-convicted Gerald Ridsdale, he attempted to cover the matter up. 

In King’s defence, her mention of George Pell’s “response to paedophile priests” does allude to the findings of the Royal Commission, and the article later references the findings of the Commission explicitly. The Guardian, meanwhile, followed the obituary with a feature article by Christopher Knaus about the findings of the Royal Commission’s un-redacted report on Pell two years earlier. However, the refusal to put Pell’s protection of child predators at the forefront of media coverage – as could have happened in his obituary – mirrors a disappointing standard set by various media outlets in the wake of his death. The ABC’s first written article covering the Cardinal’s death was quick to mention his acquittal. In fact, the quashed conviction made up approximately a third of the article. Meanwhile, the findings of the Royal Commission were restricted to a single sentence in the middle of the piece. The Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun were equally tight-lipped on the Royal Commission, despite making serial mentions across news articles, feature articles, and obituaries of the quashed conviction. 

What was said of The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun in relation to the Royal Commission can also be said of The Australian, the only exception to this being Gerard Henderson’s outright attempt at invalidating the findings of the Commission, wherein he exclaimed:

“[The Royal Commission] did not produce any oral or documentary evidence in making its hostile findings against Pell. Instead, the Royal Commission found that Pell’s evidence was, variously, “inconceivable”, “implausible”, “not tenable”, “unlikely” and so on. These were opinions only, unsupported by evidence.”

Henderson’s criticism is only viable when removed from the context of the report. Even so, he seems to have turned a blind eye to the more definitive findings of Report of Case Study No. 28: Catholic Church Authorities in Ballarat. These findings include: Pell’s admission that he should have disclosed his knowledge of child sexual abuse by priest Edward Dowlan in the early ‘70s (Page 164); the revelation that Pell directly ridiculed and dismissed reports from colleagues about Dowlan’s behaviour (Page 173); or the especially damning revelation in the section on notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale (Page 246):

“by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but had also considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it.”

The commissioners were “satisfied” with all of these findings. These findings did not reside within the realm of likelihoods and conceiveabilities as Henderson suggested. It should also be noted that, of all the voices in the conservative media willing to leap to the defence of Cardinal Pell, Henderson was one of the very few willing to attack the Royal Commission. Most found it easier to brush it aside entirely.

Ultimately, a line in the sand can be drawn between the various sects of NewsCorp, most of which seem to have leapt to the defence of Pell’s memory, and the media outlets more committed to interrogating his legacy. The question is: Why are these outlets not more willing to prioritise the findings of the Royal Commission? There are several possibilities, not least of which is the profit incentive. The story of Pell’s arrest and acquittal is one of villainy and vindication, bolstered by the shock-factor of the Cardinal’s personal charges, albeit later disproven. It was a generation-defining story, a stark comparison to the bleak findings of the abuses of power presented in the Royal Commission. As it happens, these findings were redacted until after his acquittal, by which point the global media landscape was ridden with news of a fast-unravelling global pandemic. It should also be noted that the only outlet of the top five most consumed media outlets in Australia to mention the findings before Pell’s acquittal was the publicly-funded ABC in their initial news radio broadcast of the Cardinal’s death. Another reason why the findings may have received less attention, is the lack of indictment with regard to Pell’s knowledge of child sexual abuse. Laws which mandate the reporting of child sexual abuse were not introduced in Victoria until 2014 and don’t apply retrospectively. Additionally, it is not certain that Pell would have been found guilty of these laws – the Royal Commission did not find he knew of any specific instances of child sexual abuse, only that he knew it was occuring.

Legally, George Pell is off the hook. The findings of the Royal Commission, however, are yet to be disputed (except, perhaps, by Gerard Henderson). While they don’t reveal Pell to have been a paedophile himself, they paint a picture that is arguably just as grim. In 1973, Pell was conscious of paedophile behaviour from priest Gerald Ridsdale. It was in his power to help prevent it – he did not. Ridsdale has now been convicted of over 70 acts of abuse, the latest of which occurred in 1988, fifteen years later. Also in 1973, Pell was informed of paedophilia occuring at the hands of priest Edward Dowlan, and immediately ridiculed the allegations. Dowlan has now been charged with over 40 acts of child sexual abuse, the latest of which occurred in 1985, thirteen years later. In 1989, as the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Pell was made aware of abusive behaviour by priest Peter Searson – not just in conversation, but through a list presented to him by a delegation of Searson’s colleagues. He refused to act on it. The latest recorded complaints of sexual abuse against Searson were reported to have occurred in 1998, nearly ten years later.

To measure the impact of Pell’s behaviour by the sheer number of acts he could have prevented would still fall short of accurately assessing the devastating impact of his career. This number is compounded by the number of victims and survivors who never received justice before a court of law. It is compounded by the weight of trauma bestowed upon the children of survivors and the weight of suffering bestowed upon their friends and families, often exacerbated by suicide and substance abuse. Furthermore, by failing to take action against child sexual abuse in these specific instances, Pell failed to set a precedent within the Catholic Church of Melbourne and Australia that would likely have prevented innumerable other instances, not relating to Pell, from occurring. In this sense, the extent of the harm done by George Pell is and always will be immeasurable. For this same reason, it is imperative that those who document his legacy prioritise the defining features of his career. In this instance, that means the findings of the Royal Commission. Pell may be gone, but society’s memory of him is far from fading. To paint a picture of the Cardinal according to what he did while he was alive is not to speak poorly of the dead, and it’s nowhere in the vicinity of being a witch-hunt. It is, rather, a firm reminder that no one, regardless of their position, can evade the burden of their own actions.


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