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The Sydney Institute

Cardinal George Pell has become the victim of a modern-day witch hunt. As a social conservative, Pell has a number of opponents within the Catholic Church. But his main attackers are presenters and journalists employed by the ABC, Fairfax Media, The Guardian Australia and Sky News. Such outlets rarely, if ever, allow an alternative voice to be heard.

Yet, on all the available evidence, Pell was among the first Catholic bishops in the world to address the issue of child sexual abuse by clergy.

He was appointed archbishop of Melbourne in July 1996 and announced the creation of the Melbourne Response (to deal with child sexual abuse) the following October.

The remaining Catholic archbishops and bishops in Australia set up the Towards Healing process, which began in March 1997.

Last Saturday a woman who was abused by a Catholic priest or brother in Melbourne wrote to me about Pell. She commented that the Melbourne Response while “not perfect has tried to address a very complex issue” and added: “Cardinal Pell had the courage to begin the process and since then many lives have changed for the better despite the heinous nature of child abuse.” She criticised “the leftist media commentariat who are blinkered by their prejudice about the Christian faith”.

The fact is that Pell was a leader on this issue not only within the Catholic Church but also within the Christian community. And he was well ahead of many secular and government institutions. For example, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard earlier this month that complaints made against a Sydney doctor in 1998 were not investigated by the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission until many years later. The doctor was jailed in 2011 and deregistered in 2013.

The ABC, under the direction of managing director and editor-in-chief Mark Scott, has been pursuing Pell for years. In 2013 Four Corners edited its Unholy Silenceprogram to Pell’s disadvantage by cutting out a crucial comment where he explained his role in the Catholic Church in Australia. Scott, in private correspondence, subsequently supported this act of censorship.

ABC chairman Jim Spigelman was a key adviser to Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, which appointed professor Richard Downing (1915-75) as chairman of the ABC in June 1973. In 1975, the ABC radio program Lateline gave sympathetic coverage to three self-confessed pederasts. This caused some scandal at the time since pederasty was — and remains — a serious crime.

Downing wrote to The Sydney Morning Herald on July 19, 1975 — in his formal capacity as ABC chairman — stating that “the phenomenon of pederasty seems appropriate for public discussions in a society which, if it is to be open, democratic and responsible, needs also to understand the diverse natures of people who compose that society”. Downing’s letter expressed unequivocal sympathy for pederasts.

It so happens that when Downing, as ABC chairman, was calling for an understanding of men who had sex with young boys, the now defrocked priest Gerald Ridsdale was raping boys in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat. Yet Spigelman has declined to distance the ABC from the shocking statement of one of his predecessors.

Meanwhile Scott, who joined the board of Knox Grammar School Council in late 2007 and became deputy chairman in mid-2013, has declined to answer several questions as to what he did, or did not do, with respect to auditing child sexual abuse at the school.

As evidence to the royal commission demonstrates, there was a nest of pederast teachers at Knox Grammar and offending continued up until at least 2003 and the issue did not become public until 2009, some time after Scott joined the board. As far as I am aware, Scott’s association with Knox Grammar has not been reported on the ABC. Of course, I’m not suggesting Spigelman or Scott are responsible for biased reporting, or that they in any way condone pederasts, just that they should have stepped in or made a public statement demanding balance and admonishing rogue clergy.

The ABC’s coverage of Pell has been replete with ignorance and prejudice. On Radio National (May 22) presenter James Carleton described Pell as a former “bishop of Ballarat”. This shows a total misunderstanding of Pell’s role before he moved to Melbourne. Pell was never in control of priests in the Ballarat diocese.

The ABC’s The Drum contains an article by lawyer Michael Bradley that describes Pell as a “def­endant”. The cardinal has not been charged with any offence whatsoever.

Early last week, ABC News Breakfast opened its coverage of the royal commission hearings in Ballarat with the claim that “new evidence” had been discovered with respect to Pell. In fact, the claims by David Ridsdale (Gerald Ridsdale’s nephew) that Pell offered bribes in a bid to obtain his sil­ence were first made — and refuted by Pell — as long ago as 2002.

The allegation by Tim Green that he advised Pell of child abuse in Ballarat 40 years ago has been long denied by the cardinal.

So, too, the allegation that — as a member of the Ballarat bishop’s college of consultors between 1977 and 1984 — Pell was involved in moving pedophile priests from parish to parish.

On Sky News, presenters Paul Murray and Derryn Hinch ranted against Pell and demanded that he come home and give evidence before the royal commission. In their invincible ignorance, both men seemed unaware of two matters.

First, Pell has already given evidence to the royal commission twice, once in person and once by video link.

He also voluntarily appeared before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry.

Second, no one can just rock up at the royal commission and demand an instant hearing. It’s not the way such organisations work. As it turns out, Pell has advised the royal commission that he is willing to attend its hearings again — by video link or in person.

Murray and Hinch allowed their guests to make misinformed claims against Pell without challenge. Both men channelled the ABC’s version of a debate where everyone agrees with everyone else and contrary views are excluded. Much the same occurred when ABC 702 presenter Linda Mottram discussed Pell with two guests last Tuesday.

Pell has admitted to mistakes in the handling of child sexual abuse cases. He concedes the issue of compensation could have been better handled. And Pell acknowledges that he should not have walked with Ridsdale to court in Melbourne in 1993, having previously declined to present character evidence on Ridsdale’s behalf.

Contrary to what Dee Madigan said on Paul Murray Live (May 21), there is no evidence that Pell was “complicit” in covering up acts of child sexual abuse.

However, there is evidence that Frank Little, when archbishop of Melbourne between 1974 and 1996, kept no records of clerical child abuse. And there is evidence that, when bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns moved offending priests from parish to parish. The evidence suggests the media is focusing on the wrong target.

In relation to the movement of clergy, The Age ran a page one headline (May 20) that declared: “Pell may have known of the abuse by Ridsdale”. The word may revealed that the headline was an unprofessional beat-up.

It seems it was Mulkearns who made decisions about the movement of clergy in Ballarat without consulting Pell and other priests in the diocese. At the time, many bishops did not delegate their authority to subordinates.

In his book The Prince, Guardian Australia journalist David Marr wrote that Pell (born 1941) “noticed nothing” when he shared accommodation at the East Ballarat parish in 1973 with Ridsdale. The implication is that he should have noticed something.

So far Marr has said nothing about left-wing journalist and former priest Paul Bongiorno (born 1944), who also said he noticed nothing when he shared a presbytery with Ridsdale at the Warrnambool parish at around the same time. Bongiorno received an empathetic hearing from ABC RN Breakfast presenter Fran Kelly on May 21 when he said: “Ridsdale never came into the presbytery in Warrnambool and said ‘Guess how many boys I raped today?’ They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me.”

Pell is entitled to the same understanding of his time in Ballarat as that which has been given to Bongiorno. But he won’t receive it since, unlike his one-time fellow priest, Pell is a social conservative who is the subject of a modern-day witch hunt.