Senior police officials in the Australian state of Victoria discussed by email the way that their 2014 investigation into Cardinal George Pell could deflect public scrutiny from an emerging corruption scandal in the force.
In a 2014 email exchange, then-Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton and Charlie Morton, assistant director of media and corporate communications for the Victoria police department, discussed how to respond to a high-profile scandal which would hamper the credibility of Victoria police operations.
In an email dated April 1, 2014, Morton advised Ashton not to make a media appearance in response to the “Lawyer X” scandal, because forthcoming announcements about Cardinal Pell could distract media and public attention.
“The Pell stuff is coming tomorrow and will knock this way off the front page,” Morton wrote to Ashton.
“Unless there are some serious appeals from convicted [criminals] which might get up as a result of this, then I can’t see this continuing with the same level of profile.”
The emails emerged this week as Ashton, now Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, gave evidence at a Royal Commission inquiry into the use of police sources and the Lawyer X scandal, in which criminal defense lawyer Nicola Gobbo was recruited to work as an informant against members of the Calabrian mafia, while she was representing several of them as an attorney.
Gobbo has claimed that her work as an informant for Victoria police from 1995-2009, despite issues of professional ethics and client confidentiality, led to 386 convictions, many of which are now believed to be tainted, subject to appeal, and could be overturned.
The email exchange between Ashton and Morton came after a news radio host in Melbourne referred on air to the about-to-break story as one of the “biggest law and order scandals in [Victoria state] history” and predicting it could result in “killers walking free.”
A subsequent High Court injunction prevented publication of Gobbo’s name, or any media reporting of the case from 2014, part of a years’-long, $4.5 million legal effort by Victoria police to keep details of the case from becoming public.
The reference to news about Pell being used to deflect negative coverage came just two months after Pope Francis had appointed Pell to reform Vatican financial affairs, placing him in charge of the newly-created Prefecture for the Economy in February, 2014.
It is not clear what information the two police officials were anticipating would be released the next day, though the previous week Pell had given evidence before the Royal Commission investigation into child sexual abuse in Church institutions.
In 2013, Victoria Police opened Operation Tethering, an open-ended investigation into possible crimes by Cardinal Pell, although no victims had come forward against him and there had been no criminal complaints made against him at the time. Although they had found no victims or criminal accusations, in 2015 the program was expanded and put on a more formal footing.
In 2017, Pell was charged with sexually abusing two minors. He was convicted in 2018 on the evidence of a single victim-accuser, the second supposed victim died of a heroin overdose on Aril 8, 2014 – one week after the Victoria police email exchange. That second victim had denied on several occasions that he was sexually abused by Pell.
The cardinal’s conviction was upheld on appeal by the Victoria Supreme Court in August. The Australian High Court will hear Pell’s appeal of that decision in 2020.
Since the court gag order was lifted in 2019, the Lawyer X scandal has tainted successive chiefs of the Victoria police force, all of whom were aware of Gobbo’s role a mob informer and practicing criminal lawyer.
Much of Gobbo’s work as a lawyer was with Australian members of the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia organization, which has established a deep presence both in Victoria and across the country, with allegations of multi-million dollar bribes to judges and close connections to local Victorian politicians in both political parties.
The link between the Italian and Australian branches of the organization is known to be close and ongoing.
The Lawyer X scandal has tainted several former heads of the Victoria police, all of whom were aware of Gobbo’s role and allowed it to continue. Ashton was first told of her work in 2007 when he was serving as assistant director of the Office of Police Integrity, an anti-corruption body.
Ashton told the Royal Commission on Tuesday that he saw no reason to suspect “anything untoward was going on” when he learned the lawyer was acting as a police informant against her own clients.
Gobbo, who is the niece of a former Victoria Supreme Court judge, has since said she fears retribution by police because of the scandal, refusing to go into witness protection and claiming police have threatened to take her children into protective custody to compel her cooperation.
Earlier this week, she told Australian media that “It’s not the first time that they [Victoria Police] threatened me in relation to toeing the line and doing things their way or they would take my children.”
The Victoria police force has been the subject of numerous scandals over the years. In addition to the allegations concerning Gobbo, a 2017 report found that nearly half (46%) of Victoria Police employees believe they would suffer personal repercussions if they reported corruption, with almost one in five saying it would cost them their job.