Editor's Column

Borrowed Testimony

“Billy” was a 10-year-old student at St. Jerome School in 1998, and an altar boy just like his older brother before him. A sweet, gentle kid with boyish good looks, Billy was outgoing and well-liked. One morning, after serving Mass, Rev. Charles Engelhardt caught Billy in the church sacristy sipping leftover wine. Rather than get mad, however, the priest poured Billy more wine. According to the grand jury, he also showed him some pornographic magazines, asking the boy how the pictures made him feel and whether he preferred the images of naked men or women. He told Billy it was time to become a man and that they would soon begin their “sessions.” A week later, Billy learned what Engelhardt meant. After Mass, the priest allegedly fondled the boy, sucked his penis and ordered Billy to kneel and fellate him—calling him “son” while instructing him to move his head faster or slower—until Engelhardt ejaculated. The priest later suggested another “session,” but Billy refused and Engelhardt let him be.

—Sabrina Rubin Erdely, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files”, Rolling Stone, September 15, 2011

 

What is the difference between this account of child sex abuse in a Catholic church in Philadelphia and the evidence given by the sole accuser in the Victorian court case that convicted Cardinal George Pell of sexual abuse of a thirteen-year-old choir boy at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, in 1996? Not much.

The American case allegedly occurred in 1998 and the perpetrator was a Catholic priest, not an archbishop. There were two boys in the Melbourne sacristy after mass, not one, as in Philadelphia. However, the rest of the accusation that condemned Pell bears uncanny similarities to that given by “Billy Doe” and reproduced by a journalist in the American magazine Rolling Stone, that saw Reverend Charles Engelhardt also prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison, where he died.

No transcript of the evidence given by Pell’s anonymous accuser has been released and the evidence itself was given in camera but part of the address to the jury by the Victorian Crown Prosecutor is reproduced by ABC journalist Louise Milligan in her book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell (2017, revised edition 2019). It contains the details of the sexual abuse the alleged victim—who Milligan calls “The Kid” in the excerpt from her book below—described to the court.

In December 1996, as the choir from a Sunday Solemn Mass presided over by Archbishop Pell was leaving the cathedral, two choir boys left the procession and headed for the sacristy “in search of some hijinks”. They found some communion wine there and started swigging it. Milligan continues:

 

But not much time passed before they were sprung in the act. The Kid would tell the police that it was the Archbishop, who asked them what they were doing and indicated that they were in trouble. He said Pell then approached them. He took out his penis … “He pulled [The Choirboy, i.e. the other boy] aside and had him crouch in front of him. Cardinal Pell was standing,” Crown Prosecutor Mark Gibson would later explain … “So according to [The Kid] Cardinal Pell had his hand on the back of [The Choirboy’s] head and his other hand at his own genital area. [The Kid] saw [The Choirboy’s] head being lowered towards the genital area of Cardinal Pell. This all occurred over no more than a minute or two. Cardinal Pell then moved on to [The Kid] … Cardinal Pell was standing and he pushed [The Kid’s] head down to a position where [The Kid] was crouching or kneeling. [The Kid] was then pushed onto Cardinal Pell’s erect penis so that Cardinal Pell was in [The Kid’s] mouth. This act of fellatio or oral sex lasted for a short period which [The Kid] estimates to be a couple of minutes. You will hear that Cardinal Pell then stopped and told [The Kid] to remove his pants. [The Kid] stood upright. [The Kid] pulled down or dropped his pants and his underwear in accordance with the instruction … Cardinal Pell then started touching [The Kid’s] genitalia … While touching [The Kid’s] genitalia, it’s alleged that the Cardinal was touching his own genitalia.” After a couple of minutes, the Archbishop stood up. The boys went back to their robing room.

 

The Philadelphia case was written up in Rolling Stone in September 2011, well before the Victorian police began what they called their “trawling operation” against George Pell, hoping to find someone to testify against him. As Detective Inspector Paul Sheridan of Victoria Police told Pell’s committal hearing, they began their activity in 2013 to see whether he had committed serious crimes that had gone unreported, but the complainant only came forward in June 2015. In other words, the Rolling Stone story had been in circulation for four years before an Australian version was provided to the police.

So, what is the probability that the evidence given in Australia was not an authentic account of what happened in Melbourne but, rather, a copy of a story that had already been aired in print and online? Here are the similarities between the American and the Australian allegations:

# Both cases of sexual abuse occurred in the sacristy after Sunday mass.

# In both cases, the victims had been drinking wine they found in the sacristy.

# Both boys assisted in the celebration of the mass.

# The priest fondled both boys’ genitals.

# Both boys were made to kneel before the priest.

# Both boys were made to perform fellatio on the priest.

# Both the alleged victims were the only witnesses who testified for the prosecution in court—it was their word against the priests’.

The only difference between the American and Australian evidence was the account of a second alleged meeting, which the boys said took place “a few months later” in Philadelphia and “a month or so later” in Melbourne. In the American version, it was a different priest involved this time, who led the same boy to the sacristy, told him to undress and then fellated him. In the Australian version, Pell allegedly found the boy in the back corridor of the cathedral, forced him up against a wall and fondled his genitals.

Nonetheless, the two accounts are so close to being identical that the likelihood of the Australian version being original is most implausible. There are far too many similarities in the stories for them to be explained by coincidence. The conclusion is unavoidable: “The Kid” was repeating a story he had found in a magazine—or repeating a story someone else had found for him somewhere in the media—thereby deriving his account of what Pell did from evidence given in a trial in the United States four years earlier. In short, the testimony that convicted George Pell was a sham.

This does not mean the accuser was deliberately making it up. He might have come to persuade himself the events actually happened, or some therapist might have helped him “recover” his memory. But no matter how sincere the accuser’s beliefs were, that does not make them true, especially when there is so much other evidence against them. There is little doubt that if members of the jury in Pell’s case had been informed of the surprising similarities between the two versions, some of them must have had serious questions about their witness’s veracity. The result would have been either a second hung jury or a not-guilty verdict.

So why has none of this been made public in Australia before? Although I am a reasonably thorough browser of the Australian media, I had not heard the details of the American story until a Quadrant reader, Richard Mullins, alerted me to the Rolling Stone article. However, that article was not buried away in some forgotten archive. Rolling Stone is an American magazine devoted to popular culture, targeted at teenagers and young adults. It published an Australian edition from 1970 until its closure in January 2018. In the United States the allegations made by “Billy Doe” made national headlines in 2011. Under his real name of Daniel Gallagher, he was identified as an accuser whose testimony sent two Catholic priests and a school teacher to prison, as well as Monsignor William Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s secretary for clergy. The jailing of this senior Catholic administrator for protecting clerical offenders under his charge was seen by American newspapers as proof that corruption extended to the heights of the Catholic hierarchy. The police and District Attorney’s office who investigated and prosecuted the case emerged as heroes in the American mainstream news media.

However, in 2016, Newsweek devoted a 5000-word feature article by Ralph Cipriano to the scandal. This was partly designed to expose the activist journalism of Rolling Stone author Sabrina Rubin Erdely, in the wake of her equally notorious story about a University of Virginia student who claimed in 2014 she was gang-raped by seven men at a college party. That “toxic masculinity” story dominated press and television headlines for weeks, until it was exposed as a hoax. Rolling Stone was subsequently hit with defamation suits by several of the accused young men.

Cipriano was also keen to reveal the local politics behind the subsequent legal clashes over the proceedings of the church sexual abuse cases between Pennsylvania’s higher judiciary and Philadelphia’s District Attorney. The trials of the clergy had remained front-page news in Pennsylvania for three years because multiple appeals in the cases had overturned the original convictions, resulting in retrials, reversals of convictions, and ongoing disputes between courts and government.

Newsweek also said it had reliable information that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had paid Gallagher compensation of $5 million. By this time, Gallagher’s status as a reliable witness was dubious. The magazine found a wide range of inconsistencies between the evidence he gave to police and his eventual testimony in court. He was a drug dealer and petty thief who had been arrested six times. Catholic defence lawyers argued the District Attorney had given Gallagher “red-carpet treatment” because he was one of the few alleged victims of sex abuse whose allegations fell within the local statute of limitations, which meant charges against the church could be filed.

In other words, it is very unlikely that the story of “Billy Doe” was unknown to those in Australia involved in the prosecution of George Pell. The police in Victoria who were pursuing Pell, and whose minds were no doubt finely tuned to anything that would support his prosecution, must have been aware of the success their counterparts in Philadelphia had enjoyed from both the support of their District Attorney, Seth Williams (later sentenced to five years in prison on unrelated bribery charges), and their extensive media coverage. The American example told the Victorians they were on a winning track.

What about the Australian media? They gave a lot of coverage to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse but made little mention of the fact that the findings and interpretation of events in Australia were following a well-worn track of investigations already made overseas, as I showed in my column in the April edition of Quadrant.

The current heroine of the news media pursuing this story is Louise Milligan, who has a best-seller with her book Cardinal, and her own special reports on ABC television’s 7.30 and Four Corners programs. The latest edition of her book lists the awards this work has won her: the Walkley Book Award, two Quill awards from the Melbourne Press Club, the Sir Owen Dixon Chambers Law Reporter of the Year award, the Civic Choice award in the Melbourne Prize for Literature. The new edition also carries accolades from an impressive array of left-wing journalists and authors: Annabel Crabb, David Marr, David Armstrong, Peter FitzSimons, Kate McClymont, Quentin Dempster, Michaela Bond, Derryn Hinch, Yvonne Rance, Gerard Windsor and Anton Rose, plus a foreword by novelist/historian Tom Keneally who says Pell got what he deserved because he was “a notable neo-conservative”, who “had questioned climate change” and “has raised only muted opposition to the federal government’s heinous asylum seeker policy”.

Did Milligan know about the similarities between the evidence of “Billy” and “The Kid”? There is nothing in her book, or anything else she has written that I know of, to indicate that she did. She seems to be completely in the dark about the American connection. So, as far as I can see, she cannot be accused of suppressing information to make her own case more plausible.

However, a real investigative journalist would not have left out of reckoning the overseas dimension to this story. So the most that Milligan can be accused of in her single-minded pursuit of her quarry is incompetence in not investigating the full dimensions of the story over the many months she worked on it. This must eventually be a source of embarrassment for those who have showered her with prizes, and for all those writers who adulate her journalistic skills in the early pages of her book.

The Victorian police, however, are in a different position. They had every reason both to know about the American connection and to keep it quiet, lest it ruin their case. Catholic lawyer Frank Brennan and Pell himself in the early stages of this drama both suggested that the police were leaking information to the news media. The philosopher and theologian Chris S. Friel, in an impressive, forensic examination of the case on the UK site Academia, has suggested the police engaged in a long-term strategy to slowly undermine Pell’s public reputation and to entwine it with the publicity attracted by the Royal Commission. Friel writes:

It will be countered that the very idea that the Victorian police deliberately created a distraction is just a conspiracy theory. It’s true that it is merely a hypothesis, one based on circumstantial evidence, and I would not argue that it is proven beyond reasonable doubt. But it does fit the facts, and so provide a reason to doubt whether the complainant is telling the truth beyond reasonable doubt … As to the issue of “conspiracy,” we recall that Milligan herself hints at one: for, according to the Kid, Pell is not the only menace; some unnamed and dangerous man is searching for the informant, and that is why he pleads with the journalist that she should continue her investigation.

If Australia still has any genuine investigative journalists, there must be one somewhere willing to follow these leads into the bowels of the Victorian police operations to find out what was really going on all this time. Meanwhile, George Pell remains in prison until his appeal in June, unjustly convicted and unjustly defamed.

2 comments
  • geofft

    The trial of Cardinal George Pell leaves me with the uneasy feeling I have witnessed a modern-day crucification. That George Pell was subject to vilification in and trial by media and the court of public opinion from the moment it became known he was being investigated. It is as though Cardinal Pell has been crucified to punish the entire Catholic Church for its sins regarding pedophile clergy. Vilified and ‘nailed to the cross of public opinion’ by a baying section of our community intent on someone high in the Catholic Church being forced to atone for the sins of the many within it,
    There is much to be concern about regarding the legal trial of George Pell and the evidence used to convict him.

  • Gerard

    “:…The conclusion is unavoidable: “The Kid” was repeating a story he had found in a magazine—or repeating a story someone else had found for him somewhere in the media—thereby deriving his account of what Pell did from evidence given in a trial in the United States four years earlier. In short, the testimony that convicted George Pell was a sham.”

    Seriously Keith. I love nearly all of what you write for its balance and acumen. But this statement above has neither.

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