Editor's Column

Operation ‘Get Pell’

The worst moment in Julia Gillard’s life must have come in 1996 when she was involved in a corruption scandal and forced to resign as a partner in Melbourne law firm Slater & Gordon. Her then boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, had been diverting funds, which employers thought they were paying to the Australian Workers Union, into a “slush fund” of his own, which Gillard had set up for him. She was left unemployed, without a positive reference from her previous job. However, she was still an activist in the Left of the Labor Party. She had sought, unsuccessfully, political office at the 1993 and 1996 federal elections. With no other option in 1996, she gave up the law permanently for politics.

It was her salvation. She turned around her career, indeed her life. This critical factor was the creation of Emily’s List, a feminist group founded in 1996 to provide a network of advice, volunteers and money to get like-minded, pro-abortion women elected to political office and to enforce the Labor Party’s affirmative action target of 35 per cent of winnable seats for women. In 1998, when Barry Jones retired from his safe Melbourne seat of Lalor, Gillard put up her hand and won preselection and the seat in that year’s election.

Gillard had been one of the founding members of Emily’s List and she helped get a young lawyer from her old firm, Vivian Waller, appointed its inaugural CEO. Gillard had interviewed her in 1994 at Slater & Gordon when Waller successfully applied for a position as articled clerk, a post highly prized by left-leaning law graduates in a scarce job market. (When Bill Shorten applied for the same job, he too got an interview with Gillard but failed to make the cut.) So, four years later, Waller was able to return the favour by providing Gillard with Emily’s List resources to gain the Lalor preselection, thereby rescuing her from oblivion and putting her on the road to The Lodge. Gillard now owed her.

In the memoirs of her time as Prime Minister, My Story (published 2014) Gillard says almost nothing about her travails in the 1990s but she does mention Waller, though not by name:

When I worked at Slater & Gordon, there was a young solicitor within the firm who was taking statements day after day from child sexual abuse survivors for a class-action claim being investigated. I remember how psychologically wearing it was for her. I understood and respected the decisions of people who could not face spending years of their life immersed in evidence of so much pain.

Gillard wrote this as part of the explanation for her 2012 decision to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. By this time, Waller had turned her experience in child sexual abuse cases into her own highly successful legal practice, Waller Legal. She established the firm in 2006 to specialise in compensation cases for sexual assault and child abuse victims within the Catholic Church. By the time Gillard announced the royal commission, Waller’s firm dominated this field, outperforming even Melbourne’s traditional compensation lawyers, Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn. In her book Cardinal, ABC journalist Louise Milligan calls Waller “the dogged lawyer who represents probably more victims of abuse than any other solicitor in Victoria”.

In an interview with the Young Lawyers Journal in 2011, Waller was asked about her formative influences. She said most of it came from Slater & Gordon’s senior partners:

I learned a lot about looking for that matrix of facts around which to build a compelling case. From them all, I learned about the intersection of politics and the law. There is often a great deal of lobbying to be done to try and ensure that the law is, in fact, just.

In the prosecution of George Pell for an alleged sexual assault on two choirboys in 1996, Waller was the lawyer for the witness known as “J”, the sole complainant. After the Cardinal was convicted and jailed in March this year, she appeared before the television news cameras to read a statement from J saying he drew little comfort from the decision. On this occasion she appeared modest and sombre, but on the Waller Legal website she was crowing about the victory, repeating the detailed text of local news stories in the mainstream media, publicising her appearance as a panellist on the ABC’s Q&A, and providing links to world-wide coverage by the BBC and the New York Times.

For Waller, this was a vindication of the strategy she had learned from the Slater & Gordon partners which she, with the help of other activists in this cause, had been working on for more than a decade.

In this edition, Quadrant is publishing an article by the UK philosopher and theologian Chris S. Friel, who has taken a close interest in Pell’s fate. Friel has made several article-length postings on Academia, based on his forensic investigation of the Twitter messages that have passed back and forth between several of the major players in what Pell’s defence lawyer Robert Richter called the “Get Pell” operation. Friel studies the Twitter networks that have worked in Australia to influence journalists writing on the subject, to connect police with journalists willing to publish leaks, and to pressure three governments, New South Wales, Victoria and the Commonwealth, to initiate separate inquiries based on the claims and interests of victims’ lawyers and activist groups. “Just as juries need softening in courts of law,” Friel has written, “so public opinion must be shaped in trials by media. The last decade has shown the effectiveness of social media for such purpose.”

Taking a broad view of Operation Get Pell, which really needs a book-length study to fully comprehend all that went into this campaign, there were at least seven stages in the following rough chronology:

1995: persuading the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, to establish the “Melbourne Response” to investigate and deal with child sexual abuse and regulate the compensation paid to victims in the Melbourne diocese.

1997–2007: protesting to politicians and the media that the church was covering up the guilty and was more concerned about protecting its funds and resources than giving the victims just compensation.

2012–2013: calling on State and Commonwealth governments to launch parliamentary inquiries and a royal commission into child sexual abuse in institutions.

2012–2015: guiding the Victorian police to identify culprits, first in Taskforce Sano, followed by Operation Tethering, with the latter ultimately identifying George Pell as a target.

2016–2017: leaking to sympathetic journalists that prosecutions were looming and helping them make contact with alleged victims.

2016–2018: persuading the media, the police and the courts that the victims are so fragile—most allegedly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder—they must not be personally identified, they have to give evidence in camera, and they should be believed on the strength of their testimony alone.

2015–2019: urging and facilitating the prosecution and conviction of George Pell.

In this process, the key events were in late 2012 when the New South Wales and Victorian governments were persuaded that the issue amounted to a major social crisis. Liberal governments in both states, under Barry O’Farrell and Denis Napthine, appointed their own inquiries. Even though child sexual abuse is plainly an issue for state governments, Julia Gillard paid her dues to Vivian Waller by joining the fray and appointing her own royal commission. All this attention transformed the issue from one held by a small number of activists with access to leftist media outlets, into a matter of great national concern.

It also transformed what was really at stake in these claims. For it soon became apparent that what the activists, lawyers and their media friends potentially threatened was the very existence of the Catholic Church itself. That is why those in this campaign responded with such vigour when it emerged as a possibility. The same thing had already been recognised in the United States where civil suits in Boston in 2002 alleged the church hierarchy had shielded priests guilty of rape. Once this finding came within the sights of activists, they could see much further possibilities. As journalist Sabrina Erdely wrote in Rolling Stone in 2011:

the Catholic hierarchy’s failure to protect children from sexual abuse isn’t the fault of an inept medieval bureaucracy, but rather the deliberate and criminal work of a cold and calculating organization. In a very real sense, it’s not just [Monsignor William] Lynn who is on trial here. It’s the Catholic Church itself.

When Gillard announced the Royal Commission in November 2012, there were some journalists in Australia who understood this too. Paul Kelly wrote in the Australian that although the Royal Commission would only amount to a high-cost, state-church shambles, it was a perfect fit for Gillard’s political strategy—“the combination of a moral crusade, a cast of victims and coming systemic dismantling of the Catholic Church”.

In Australia, as in the US, the argument quickly shifted from a legitimate concern about the fate of those children abused by priests to the more debatable issue of the reluctance of the Catholic hierarchy to pay out large sums of money—from $50,000 to $200,000 per individual was the going rate in Victoria under the Melbourne Response. This was expected to be paid to anyone who turned up and claimed to be a victim, even some with unlikely, or indeed impossible, stories to tell. The church sometimes baulked at this kind of thing. This allowed the victims’ legal supporters to argue that the top echelons of the church were conspiring to silence the survivors and save money, thereby shifting the focus of attention from the failings of individual priests to the failure of the church itself. Vivian Waller told Emma Alberici in an ABC interview in May 2017:

If you’re asking me is the Church living up to its testimony in the Royal Commission about how it’s responding to civil claims, no, it’s not. There’s been a procession of bishops and archbishops crying crocodile tears about how they’re going to respond more compassionately to civil claims for compensation. But we’re not finding that at the coalface. We’re finding that the diocese of Ballarat is taking most of the defences that are available to it and challenging claims on a very technical basis.

Some of those who think this way, and hope the child sexual abuse scandal will eventually destroy the church, are displaying their own political predilections. They are trying to beat up a scandal that is undoubtedly genuine but has affected a comparatively small number of people, into a cataclysm. They are arguing that because they have found one genuine fault—the penetration of the priesthood by a small number of homosexual pederasts—this proves the whole institution is rotten to the core. This is the thinking of a very fundamentalist kind of utopianism that wants to rid the Earth of corruption to create a perfect world. In history, it has often been the basis of the politics of revolution. It is also a kind of thinking that exploits the real suffering of genuine victims for the activists’ own political ends.

The most revealing evidence for this interpretation comes from the differences between the findings of the New South Wales inquiry in 2012 and those conducted by the Victorian and Commonwealth governments. In New South Wales, the special commission headed by long-time Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cuneen SC was appointed to consider claims by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox and his principal media spruiker, Fairfax reporter Joanne McCarthy. Cuneen’s inquiry, which sat for ninety-two days and heard submissions from 161 people in both private and public sittings, did find some evidence of a cover-up within the church hierarchy. Church officials did have information they failed to reveal, which would have assisted police investigations. Cuneen named Bishop Leo Clarke, head of the Newcastle diocese for twenty years, for his “inexcusable” conduct, motivated by a fear that it would bring scandal to the church. But the report was even more telling in its findings about those who blew the whistle. It was scathing in its criticism of Fox, arguing many of his claims were either “implausible” or “exaggerated”:

The commission considers that by at least 2010 Fox had lost the objectivity required of an investigating officer regarding such matters. While he remained passionate about things involving the Catholic Church, he no longer possessed the detachment necessary for properly investigating such matters. In short, he had become a zealot.

And this is really what this whole issue comes down to: defenders of the church trying to protect it from questionable claims about its behaviour, versus zealots who want to use this issue to mortally wound the church itself.

For those of us who are not Catholics, there is still another equally important issue at stake: the fundamental legal principle that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As has been argued several times in this journal and website, this was not how George Pell was treated. The jury made their decision not on the weight of evidence presented in court, which demonstrated that Pell could not possibly have done what the complainant said. Instead, the jurors accepted the sole evidence of the complainant, given in camera, with his identity shielded, and lacking corroboration of any kind.

In the United States, the same issue was central to the case of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, where a woman claimed she had been sexually assaulted by him at a party when both were in their teens. Like J in the Pell case, when she told her version of events to the US Congress, she offered no corroboration for her story, which Kavanaugh vigorously denied. By assuming the status of victim, she expected Congress to take her on her word alone. She almost succeeded. Fortunately, Congress decided by the narrowest of margins that her claim was not credible, and Kavanaugh went on to become a judge of the United States Supreme Court.

In Australia, unfortunately, the outcome was the opposite. The claims made by one person against George Pell were believed by the second jury that heard them, and he remains in jail, his reputation and career destroyed, waiting to hear the outcome of his appeal. If the kind of court process that convicted him sets a precedent, then Pell’s fate will be far more than a one-off misadventure. In the current climate of sexual politics, it is bound to be a model for the persecution of many others.

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