How George Pell gazumped other bishops to claim credit for tackling child abuse in the church

  • Louise Milligan

Broadly speaking, my aim in introducing the Melbourne Response was to make it easier for victims to achieve justice, and to seek financial compensation and counselling, without needing to establish legal liability. I believe that it was the first scheme of its kind implemented anywhere in the world to respond to victims of child sexual abuse. I was, and remain, proud of its establishment and the assistance it has provided to victims since 1996. Statement of Cardinal George Pell, August 2014

“It was 1996 and the media was going after the issue percolating child abuse crisis in a big way. The victims were becoming emboldened. It was becoming a dominant narrative: terrible PR for a Church whose mass attendance numbers were already in freefall. It was also potentially costly in terms of compensation payouts. And it was unclear just how many priests Pell as archbishop might lose to criminal prosecutions, but suffice to say they were falling over like dominoes.

Melbourne had more paedophile priests than any other place in the country. And most of them operated during George Pell’s time in Victoria as priest or bishop. The Cardinal is proud of his record in being the first Australian bishop to respond to the child abuse crisis. He consistently cites it when he is being scrutinised in the media and points out that he was probably the first in the world, let alone here in Australia, to boldly go where no other bishop had dared to tread.

In 2016, he said: “When I became Archbishop, I turned the situation right around so that the Melbourne Response procedures were light years ahead of all this obfuscation and prevarication and deception.”

You have to wonder, then, what this religious leader who was so zealously committed to rooting out child abuse was doing in March 1996—just four months before his appointment as archbishop— at the funeral of one Nazareno Fasciale.

Fasciale was parish priest at Yarraville in Melbourne’s inner west. In the preceding December, Fasciale had been charged by Newport detectives with multiple counts of indecent assault and gross indecency against four victims who had been assisted by the newly formed victims’ advocacy group Broken Rites.

The priest had been remanded to appear in court the following February. As the new year arrived, the Newport detectives discovered that there was another file on Fasciale with three further victims in the nearby town of Geelong, and police had planned to apply to the Office of Public Prosecutions to combine the cases.

When the matter came to court in February, a Church solicitor applied for an extension of time, alleging poor health on the part of Fasciale. The date was set for six weeks later. Fasciale was dead within a month. Fasciale’s skirmishes in the criminal justice system right before his death did not deter his priestly colleagues from giving him a glorious requiem mass send-off at St Mary’s in West Melbourne.

[Pell joined] four bishops, along with an extraordinary sixty priests, attending the funeral. The Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne Peter Connors led the ceremony, referring only obliquely to Fasciale’s crimes.

“The life of our brother Nazareno Fasciale was not without its own fair measure of pain and suffering,” Connors conceded. “He would be the first to confess that he too was a sinner.”

Maybe Pell just didn’t know that Fasciale had been charged with indictable offences against little kids. Priests, he would often later chide, don’t gossip. This was not, I might say, my experience, in writing my book

Two years before the funeral, in 1993, when Fasciale resigned for euphemistically titled “ill health and stress” after, handwritten archdiocesan notes attested, being “shocked and repentant” about what he had done to children, Pell was on the Personal Advisory Board which accepted the resignation letter. Pell agreed that of the five members of the board that day, three—Archbishop Little, Monsignor Gerry Cudmore and Monsignor Hilton Deakin—were aware of child abuse complaints against Fasciale.

Pell was most certainly not the first person in the Catholic Church to decide to address the issues, he just got in at the last minute, before the national response was about to be released.

So, was Pell? Did they tell him? “I can’t remember whether they did or they didn’t. It is possible that they did,” Pell much later said. The funeral of Fasciale occurred about three years after the fateful day when Pell accompanied serial paedophile Gerald Ridsdale to court in Warrnambool.

The photograph will haunt Pell to his grave — it is used by the media every time there is a discussion of him and child abuse. On a kind interpretation, Pell was just doing what real Catholics do, walking with a sinner at his darkest hour

But from the Ridsdale victims’ point of view, this “priestly act of solidarity”, as Pell much later called it, is nothing more than a slap in the face to them and their enormous suffering.

The Fasciale business suggests that perhaps Warrnambool didn’t represent a one-off, well-meaning, priestly brain snap, that it represented an attitude.

Whatever he thought in March 1996, by Pell’s account in July, his resolve had hardened against this dreadful paedophile scourge. Launching the Melbourne Response at a press conference Pell apologised unreservedly to victims. It seemed like this was a turning point. The scheme included, a Special Commissioner, a compensation panel which could award the victims up to $50 000, and an independent counselling service known as Carelink.

Victoria Police released a statement welcoming the Melbourne Response, saying it was “a positive step in tackling this very sensitive community issue”. In his much later statement to the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Institutions in 2014, Pell wrote that as archbishop, he knew he had to act immediately.

“This was an issue that needed urgent attention and … we needed to do much better in our response,” the Pell statement says. “At that stage no decision had then been taken by the Australian bishops to set up the Towards Healing procedures. This was decided at the November 1996 meeting of the Australian Bishops’ conference. The Towards Healing Protocol was published in December 1997.”

While this is all strictly true, it’s a pretty selective analysis of the facts. In 1996, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference was working on a scheme called Towards Healing and had been developing it and consulting with stakeholders for three years. The man charged with running it was the Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Geoffrey Robinson.

The history of how this took place is significant, because Pell’s immediate refrain whenever he is questioned about his handling of child abuse matters, is that he was, through his Melbourne Response, the first Catholic bishop in Australia, and anywhere in the world, to come up with a comprehensive program to tackle the child abuse question.

Pell was most certainly not the first person in the Catholic Church to decide to address the issues, he just got in at the last minute, before the national response was about to be released.

In the 1980s, the Church’s euphemistically titled “Special Issues Committee” was headed by, of all people, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns from Ballarat, who had covered up the offending of priests in his diocese for decades. However, the committee began to acknowledge the scale of the problem as the realisation dawned on the Church internationally that something must be done.

Robinson said that at first psychiatrists told them they could cure paedophile priests, but that changed as the profession came to terms with the incurable nature of paedophilia. Robinson was appointed to develop a new protocol, which was to become Towards Healing.

One of the questions often asked of the Church is why develop a protocol at all? This was, after all, a criminal justice issue — why not direct the complainants to the police? But Robinson says the majority of complainants he met at that time were not interested in going to the police. So, Robinson set his mind to developing an alternative forum for victims to get some sort of restorative justice, not to mention making sure that none of the accused priests remained in service with access to children.

But turning around the attitudes of his colleagues was a massive effort. He bore the brunt of some of the bishops’ ire.

“One bishop called me a fanatic, another an avenging angel, and yet another accused me of ‘acting like Adolf Hitler in the way you harangued and bullied the bishops’,” Robinson said.

Having said that, of the forty-one bishops present at a vote in April 1996, only five voted against the protocol. As one of the senior people involved with the developmental stages of Towards Healing remembers, getting the protocol drawn up was a tricky business: “It had been going on for three years. Every time we drew up a protocol, Geoff Robinson would rightly insist on taking it to the victims’ groups and understandably, it was never good enough [for them] and we had draft after draft after draft.”

Robinson also had to get diverse dioceses and religious orders, each with their own leaders who had differing views, to come together as one. It was a massive task. “So instead of having this thing in 1994 as we expected, it had dragged on to November 1996.

“George came in as archbishop and because he thought we were taking too long, he decided he would introduce his own protocol,” the person told me.

“Geoff [Robinson] sent out about ten things trying to achieve consensus before we were all due to meet in the November,” recalls Bishop Emeritus of Canberra-Goulburn, Pat Power.

“Then out of the blue, George Pell comes up with his own thing. When he claims that he was the one that gave the lead, he really just broke ranks with everyone. Certainly, the thing of him coming out early was something everyone felt very critical about.”

“The Melbourne bombshell,” Robinson later called it, confirming that Pell had been there for all of the discussions on Towards Healing, all of the motions, but hadn’t said a word against it.

Robinson knew nothing of the Melbourne Response until Pell made it public without telling any of the other bishops. “He later would claim that he was the first person in Australia to have such a protocol, he was ahead of everybody, in other words. I mean, that’s only a very partial truth.”

Bishop Bill Morris, who had joined the Bishops Conference in 1993 as Bishop of Toowoomba, says the other bishops were very disappointed.

“Well, this is George, George will go his own way because George wants to reform the Church according to George Pell,” Morris says.

“It would have been much better for the Church in Australia to act as one to bring in a national approach and I am sure those who were close to George would have said that to him.”

The November 1996 meeting, which included bishops from every diocese in the country, as well as the leaders of all the religious orders such as the Jesuits and the Christian Brothers, was the day that the bishops approved the Towards Healing protocol — a united Church front to make an attempt to address this scourge.

Some who were present were particularly furious at Pell’s lack of consultation with others — especially his failure, as they put it, to hear the opinions of the religious leaders who would be operating in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

One of those was Bill Uren, Provincial of the Jesuit order.

The big meeting was at Kensington in Sydney on 22 November 1996. On the conference floor, Uren’s blood began to boil because when Robinson would mention “the protocol” (Towards Healing), Pell would interrupt and say, “there are two protocols”.

After it happened several times, Uren saw red. He jumped to his feet and confronted Pell across the conference floor for not consulting the religious leaders of Victoria before going ahead with the Melbourne Response.

Pell replied that he did consult them, but Uren said to Pell he believed the only one Pell had spoken to was Brother Paul Noonan — who was then the head of the Christian Brothers.

Uren had received the information in one of those typical Catholic coincidences — his personal assistant was the wife of the Christian Brothers’ lawyer.

Uren went on to correct Pell about the “consultation”, saying it was simply a statement informing Noonan that it would be happening. It was said that you could have heard a pin drop.

Uren really got going then, saying that the rest of them had been working on Towards Healing for three years and had been gazumped by Pell without any consultation with the religious leaders.

After the meeting, sources told me the two went toe-to-toe in the doorway, where Pell is said to have told Uren he objected to being called a liar in front of his fellow bishops.

Uren finished up as Provincial of the Jesuits the following month, in December 1996. Ironically, and much to Uren’s dismay, his successor, Daven Day, was the only religious leader (or bishop) in Australia to opt to go with Pell’s Melbourne Response, rather than Towards Healing.

Morris and many others I have spoken to in the Church believe that Towards Healing, while certainly not perfect and in many ways wanting, had a more pastoral outlook than the Melbourne Response, which was set up under the auspices of a Queen’s Counsel and had a more legalistic framework.

Pell’s argument is that the situation was so dramatic that he had to act swiftly. To be fair to Pell, things in the Catholic Church move in a byzantine and sluggish way. He knew the job needed to be done. But many of his colleagues believe that in going about it the way he did, he undermined the national process with an inferior scheme, and that unity was vital when addressing such a vexed issue.

In covering the later Royal Commission and speaking to survivors, solicitors and advocacy groups, I found that the response to the Response, from the people it was meant to help, was overwhelmingly underwhelmed. This was a position later reflected in the Victorian parliament’s Betrayal of Trust Report by the Parliamentary Inquiry in the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Institutions of November 2013.

One of the issues some survivors had was that the counselling service Carelink was run by a psychiatrist, Professor Richard Ball, who had provided treatment not just to victims, but to priests of the archdiocese and had also provided expert witness statements on the priests’ behalf.

The Royal Commission later agreed that while it did not question Ball’s integrity, “where there is a power imbalance, perceptions matter a great deal”.

Then there is the fact that Pell’s solicitor was given medical and psychological reports and assessments of the victims (albeit “on a confidential and without prejudice basis”), and was involved with each component of the process, at the same time as he was acting on behalf of the archdiocese.

The Royal Commission later found the fact that the solicitors were performing these dual roles raised “clear potential for conflict. It also raises difficulties with confidentiality.”

This is an edited extract from Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell by Louise Milligan (MUP) $34.99 out on May 15.”