September 7th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: It was right for Australia to be in Vietnam

EDITORIAL: The family: an endangered species

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Self-destructing Democrats: the real winners

COMMENT: Trial by media: the attacks on Archbishop Pell

MIDDLE EAST: Why Bush is unlikely to attack Iraq

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Russian roulette / Thick skins and strong stomachs

FAMILY: Child predators: the untold story

STEM CELL DEBATE: MPs smell a rat over Trounson's stem cell claim

Telstra sale (letter)

An honourable man (letter)

ENVIRONMENT: How now, brown cloud?

POLITICS: Principles and pragmatism: the Democrats' demise

ASIA: Singapore: hard work the key to success

West Papua 40 years on

BOOKS: Cutting Edge Bioethics, edited by John Kilner

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Trial by media: the attacks on Archbishop Pell

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, September 7, 2002
The allegations of sexual impropriety made against Sydney's Catholic Archbishop, Dr George Pell - allegations which Archbishop Pell has described as "lies", but which forced him to step aside pending an independent inquiry - have all the hallmarks of trial by media.

Despite the willingness of newspapers, radio and TV to fully report the allegations, the complainant remains anonymous. He declined to take his complaints to the police, although invited to do so.

According to the Melbourne Age, Archbishop Pell decided to step down "a day after he received inquiries from the Age about allegations made by a Melbourne man to the Church's National Committee for Professional Standards." (August 21, 2002)

Rather than remain in office while the allegations swirled around him, Dr Pell decided to step down "for the good of the Church and to preserve the dignity of the office of Archbishop".

However, former priest and Religious Affairs commentator on the ABC, Paul Collins, told ABC radio that he had received what he described as an "anonymous" email message a fortnight before the revelations became public, which detailed the same allegations against Archbishop Pell.

Clearly, the Age had also been the recipient of these allegations, which it said had been given to Broken Rites, an organisation which represents abuse victims, early in June, 2002.

Broken Rites suggested that the complaints be taken to the Church's National Committee for Professional Standards, which supervises the Church's "Towards Healing" protocol for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.

According to a spokesman for Broken Rites, Chris MacIsaac, interviewed on Channel 9's Sunday program (August 25, 2002), the only people who knew of the allegations before their publication in the Age were the newspaper itself, the Catholic Church and Broken Rites.

If true, this considerably narrows the field of those who emailed the allegations to possible media outlets.

Before running the story, the Age made inquiries about the man making the allegations, and reported that "Dr Pell's accuser has a long criminal history. He has been convicted of various offences, including drug trafficking" (August 21, 2002). Yet on the Sunday programme, MacIsaac accused the Catholic Church of releasing this information!

What is most disturbing about this matter is that the media have reported these allegations, without giving its readers an opportunity to judge whether they are true or false.

As to the allegations against Dr Pell, claims that he had interfered with the complainant "on many occasions", as the Sydney Morning Herald reported it, and with at least one other person at a youth camp at Phillip Island in the early 1960s, are extremely improbable.

Interestingly, the day after the Age's front page report, "Sex abuse allegations force Pell to stand aside", it briefly reported that several former altar boys who attended the same camp, flatly denied the allegations.

If any seminarian had misbehaved at the camp, it probably would have become known. Seminarians are on probation, and any misconduct which became known would have led to instant dismissal from the seminary.

Misconduct at a camp would have been far more likely to be detected than if it took place privately. Pedophiles usually work on vulnerable children in places which minimise the possibility of detection.

Further, the nature of these offences are pathological, and would indicate a serious psychiatric sexual disorder, and repeated offences.

Such conduct would have led to a sea of rumours surrounding such a person throughout his career. There have been no such rumours against Archbishop Pell at any time over the past 40 years.

As to the person making the allegations, it is reported that he is a ships' painter and docker, with a lengthy criminal record, including trafficking in amphetamines and cannabis, and acts of violence. Such a person may well be an unreliable source.

He refused to make a complaint to the police, although invited to do so.

He stands to benefit financially if the complaint is upheld. Interestingly, the complaint was lodged shortly after the 60 Minutes program went to air early in June, when it was reported that victims were offered compensation of up to $50,000.


The person appointed by the Church to conduct the inquiry into the allegations against the Archbishop, Alex Southwell QC, a former judge and not a Catholic, is highly regarded for his analytical skills, and is therefore expected to undertake the process promptly and rigorously.

Dr Pell did the right thing by standing aside and announcing that he would fully co-operate with the inquiry; but it leaves a big gap in Sydney, and has cast the shadow of suspicion over the church which has been damaged by other allegations over recent years.

What is worst about all this is that Dr Pell has been in the forefront of condemning and exposing sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Australia, having established an independent body to investigate all such allegations and provide assistance to victims, before any other bishop in Australia.

  • Peter Westmore

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