The Cardinal Who Knew Nothing

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Why did the Catholic Church choose to litigate against John Ellis? If you believe Cardinal George Pell, it was because he was never once told of the alternative — a payout of $100,000, a tiny fraction of the millions Pell claims to have believed Ellis was actually after, and of the grand sums the church spent in lawyers' fees to win the case.

In astonishing testimony yesterday the Cardinal confirmed his hands-on involvement in almost every element of the Ellis case. He appointed Raymond Brazil, the facilitator in Ellis' Towards Healing sessions. He personally composed the "rejection" letter Ellis received on Christmas Eve 2002, that informed him that the church could do nothing more for him, going so far as to personally remove "illogical" statements of regret for hurt caused that were included in an earlier draft. He raised the Ellis case in a meeting with his Bishops and considered it to be a special case, because the abuser priest had dementia.

But, under questioning from Commissioner Peter McClellan and Gail Furness SC, Pell insisted again and again that he "never knew" of the $100,000 figure, that Ellis had arrived at after his Towards Healing process was bungled.

Furness put it to the Cardinal that it was "inconceivable" that he could not have been told, given his close involvement and interest in the case. Pell replied that he was concerned not with "what is conceivable or logically possible", before contradicting the evidence given by his senior staff: his personal secretary of over a decade, Dr Michael Casey, former Vicar-General Monsignor Brian Rayner, and Michael Salmon, the current director of the Professional Standards Office.

Pell insisted that yes, normally he would have been told, and that his staff were right to assume that he would have been told, but in this one particular case he was not. Then he proceeded to throw his staff under the bus.

In fact, he said, Casey was "generally wrong" regarding money matters. Rayner, for his part, should have told Pell about the $100,000 (Rayner already gave evidence saying he did). John Davoren, the former head of Professional Standards, was a muddler.

For his own part, Pell didn't take action to remove Davoren, who "didn’t seem to have a scrupulous understanding or commitment" to the process — he waited for him to retire of his own volition. Nor did Pell organise a general audit of Davoren's work.

Neither was Pell informed in his dealings with Catholic Church Insurance. The only concession the Cardinal made was that there was a "very remote possibility" that the $100,000 was mentioned in the context of Ellis refusing to sign a deed of release — but that, in his trademark style, he couldn't recall.

An increase of $5000 that was offered to Ellis after he was asked to leave his job as partner of a law firm — he is still suffering the trauma of abuse long into his adult years — was a "grotesque" gesture that was "not appropriate in any sense". Of course, that was "a further indication I had nothing to do with it", Pell said.

McClellan, exasperated, asked Pell whether he asked what Ellis wanted before retaining the services of an expensive city law firm to begin litigating. "Did it not occur to you to ask why it [the Towards Healing facilitation with Ellis]had failed?" he said. It did not — he was merely acting on advice from his lawyers to litigate.

So was the Ellis case "lawfare"? The questioning from McClellan and Furness yesterday strongly implied that it was, that Pell chose to drive ahead with the litigation, deliberately closing off options for mediation and reconciliation, including spiritual and pastoral concerns that should have been a priority for a clergyman. In his defence, Pell said he stopped the pastoral elements of Towards Healing for Ellis during the litigation to avoid "grievous infusion" — prejudicing the litigation.

For the broader purposes of the commission, Pell's obstinate testimony is almost a moot point, as is his individual knowledge of the $100,000 offer from Ellis. What is clear is that the church's internal governance of Towards Healing was so poor that they can't even get their story straight for the court. Pell insisted multiple times that he wasn't a "micromanager", as if keeping traumatised people in your care at a bureaucratic remove is somehow a Christian virtue. The backstabbing and dissembling heard before a tribunal established to deliver justice for victims will be evidence enough that the church is not fit to govern itself in this matter.

As I wrote last week, it's clear by now that the whole Towards Healing system was structurally prejudiced against victims from the get-go. It delivered an outcome that was less just, and in some cases more traumatic, than going to court. Pell all but admitted that yesterday, agreeing with McClellan that Towards Healing went nowhere towards the requirements of justice demanded by the common law.

All the Cardinal could say in its defence at the conclusion of yesterday's testimony was that it was "much less inadequate than many other systems … at least we had something in place". There will likely be a much more rigorous process put in place to adjudicate child abuse claims after the Royal Commission has concluded.

Pell will appear before the Royal Commission again on Wednesday.

New Matilda

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