A hearing will that will decide whether Cardinal George Pell will go on trial for alleged abuse came to a conclusion Thursday after Pell’s attorney launched a vigorous defense and sought to cast doubt on the path from the first police investigations through the filing of legal charges.
Pell’s defense lawyer Robert Richter, 72, engaged in cross-examination of the charges against his client, with Victoria Police Crime Command’s head of serious crime, Paul Sheridan, taking the stand in court.
The Victoria Police launched a special operation in 2013 to investigate Pell, “Operation Tethering.” Richter charged that at its launch, “it was an operation looking for a crime because no crime had been reported.”
Sheridan confirmed the effort had been launched in 2013 specifically to gather information on the cardinal. There was a search for complainants and no one came forward until more than a year after the investigation began.
The total number of charges are not public, but most abuse allegedly took place in the 1970s. An additional allegation concerned the cardinal’s time as Melbourne’s archbishop from 1996-2001. Cardinal Pell has said he is innocent. He currently heads the Holy See’s Secretariat for the Economy and is one of the nine cardinals advising Pope Francis.
The hearing in Melbourne Magistrates Court concluded Thursday after hearing testimony from 50 witnesses, including Pell’s accusers, CNN reports. The cardinal was present every day of the hearing.
Richter charged that the police operation investigating Pell was dormant for two years without any accusers, Australia’s ABC News reports. He contended that investigating officers pursued relatively “benign” allegations against the cardinal while putting more serious allegations against a nun and a teacher “on the back burner.”
Sheridan rejected this, saying there could be a better explanation, but he did not know why police did not pursue the other cases.
Pell’s attorney claimed that police made more in-depth inquiries into the cardinal due to “public and political pressure,” suggesting this was linked to the work of the Royal Commission investigating abuse.
Richter also said detectives investigating the cardinal failed to follow proper procedure in interviewing potential witnesses. Police made charges against the cardinal in relation to an alleged crime at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then interviewed choir members and personnel.
“How could this happen that no relevant inquiries were made with other relevant choir members … before the Cardinal was charged,” said Richter.
A search warrant executed in 2016 on several addresses in Melbourne failed to look for the cardinal’s diaries in the archives of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This would have described the cardinal’s movements and possibly exonerate him, the defense attorney said.
The attorney also tried to attack the credibility of the prosecution, saying there was no supporting evidence or witnesses behind accusers’ claims of abuse. He claimed that some alleged abuse victims had been treated in psychiatric hospitals or had been allegedly abused by other clergy.
At one point the attorney attacked the credibility of the magistrate, Belinda Wallington. During a discussion about the precise date the cardinal allegedly abused a victim, the magistrate did not accept a date he said was a fact. He then applied for her to be disqualified on the grounds of “biased view of the evidence.”
The magistrate immediately responded “Your application is refused.”
Cardinal Pell had asked for police statements before his October 2016 interview with police. The request was refused, but he did receive a summary of allegations including dates and locations.
The cardinal is excused from an April 17 hearing but will return to court for a final decision at some point in the future. He will spend Holy Week at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Sydney.
After the charges against Pell were announced, he was granted leave from his post by Pope Francis in order to return to Australia for the trial.
Detectives had secretly planned to arrest Cardinal Pell at a November 2015 Royal Commission hearing in Melbourne. Ten days before the hearing, the cardinal said he could not travel for health reasons. He gave testimony by video from Rome in March 2016.
Richter objected that it would have been illegal to arrest Pell simply to question him.
On March 2, 2018 prosecutors dropped a key abuse charge after the complainant passed away in January. The accuser, Damian Dignan, was joined by another classmate who in 2016 alleged that Pell engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior when they were minors, both students at St. Alipius school in Ballarat, decades before.
Defense attorney Ruth Shann argued that Dignan was not credible, since his claim came nearly 40 years after the alleged abuse and after reading about other cases in newspapers. She said his complaint had a “domino effect” leading to other people contacting police.