This edition of Quadrant has a renewed focus on the persecution of Cardinal George Pell, with an extract from Gerard Henderson’s new book on the subject and an article by Pell himself on Edward Gibbon’s monumental work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. So, even though the High Court found twenty months ago that Pell was innocent, and although he would probably now like to put the experience behind him, this is an appropriate time to raise two other issues about Pell’s ordeal that have emerged since.
The first issue is the renewed attention being given in Rome to the question of whether there was an attempt to influence events in Australia by senior figures in the Vatican. In October the trial began of former Cardinal Giovanni Becciu on charges of fraudulent appropriation of Vatican finances and abuse of office. In September last year, Pope Francis ordered Becciu to resign his positions as papal prefect and cardinal. Becciu had been accused by Vatican prosecutors of responsibility for financial scandals at the Secretariat of State, including embezzlements from church-run hospitals, a failed London property investment and other scandals in which money went to some of his relatives.
After George Pell was appointed to the Secretariat of State in 2014, his attempts over the next three years to impose normal accounting standards onto various Vatican departments were openly opposed by Becciu. When Pell had to return to Australia to face his committal hearings and trial in 2018, the Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and Il Messagero quoted Becciu’s former deputy, Alberto Perlasca, who claimed Vatican money had been transferred to Australia to fund bribes to various officials and witnesses to prosecute the child sexual abuse case against Pell.
Now, there is no dispute that four international money transfers, totalling more than $2 million, were transferred from the Vatican to Australia at the time claimed in 2016 and 2017. Two of the transfers were authorised by Becciu. However, the money was sent to the Melbourne offices of Neustar, an American company providing global communications and internet directory and security services. Becciu insists that these payments were legitimate business expenses and Vatican prosecutors have so far not listed them as potential issues for the trial.
After Australian Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells asked AUSTRAC, the Australian financial intelligence service, to investigate the Vatican payments, the agency calculated that, as well as the Neustar payments, between 2014 and 2020 amounts of between $6.5 and $7 million had been transferred. However, the Australian Federal Police, who had been investigating the same money transfers identified by AUSTRAC, announced in February 2021 they had found no evidence of criminal activity in the identified money transfers.
In this case, the lack of evidence does not settle the issue. If there really was an intention by Becciu or any of his associates to damage Pell by initiating a child sexual abuse case against him, it is hardly likely they would have transferred bribes through normal channels that AUSTRAC can readily trace. The most likely source of the kind of evidence needed is Becciu’s trial itself in which one or more of the guilty parties uses inside knowledge to negotiate a plea bargain in return for the authorities dropping charges against them. But at the moment there is no evidence that such evidence is a possibility. Becciu’s trial is scheduled to last several months into the new year and it has a lot of ground to cover, so it cannot be written off yet, but the prospects seem slim.
Moreover, I wrote in these pages a year ago a few lines that still hold good: given the enthusiasm to persecute Pell displayed by those arrayed against him in Australian police, legal and media circles, if Vatican bribery was offered it was probably wasted. As Humbert Wolfe observed long ago in his perceptive verse, when you see what they will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
THE SECOND issue is closer to home. The anonymous former choirboy, Witness J, who accused Pell of sexually abusing him in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, after Mass on a Sunday morning in December 1996, has now published his curriculum vitae on the online employment networking site LinkedIn. For those who know his real identity, it tells an intriguing tale.
While much of the public debate among Pell supporters prior to his acquittal pointed to the strange determination of the Victoria Police’s hierarchy to pursue such an improbable case, the focus was on the two most recent Commissioners, Graham Ashton and Shane Patton. Their efforts to persuade both the Victorian Parliament’s inquiry into child sexual abuse and the national news media that Pell was guilty of such a crime was anything but the pursuit of justice. It looked like a stitch-up from the start. The choirboy’s CV reveals, quite inadvertently, that as well as having these two members of the police hierarchy on side, he enjoyed the support of a third one as well, someone who has so far avoided any place in the overall picture.
The CV records that Witness J was unemployed for the entire time from March 2014 to June 2019—a period which more than covers the timeline of his accusation to police, his evidence at committal hearings, the trial itself, and Pell’s conviction. However, after his evidence had done its work and put Pell in jail, Witness J was rescued from the dole queue and given a full-time job and a salary. The story behind this is better understood if it starts with the political background.
Simon Overland was appointed Victoria’s Deputy Police Commissioner in 2006. Following the debacle of the period when Christine Nixon was Chief Commissioner, the Brumby Labor government appointed Overland to replace her in 2009. However, after a report by the police ombudsman accused him of doctoring crime statistics to support Labor at a time when law and order had become a big election issue, Overland resigned in 2011. Gangland lawyer and secret police informer Nicola Gobbo, in evidence to Victoria’s Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants (the Lawyer X commission) described Overland as being “evil, corrupt and dishonest” in his dealings with her, which led to frame-ups and lengthy prison sentences for various organised-crime figures and associates, some who were guilty but others who were not.
In 2017, Overland gained the position of Chief Executive Officer of the City of Whittlesea, a local government council on Melbourne’s suburban outskirts. He held this position until December 2019 when the council voted to sack him. This happened at a time when publicity about the Royal Commission was rife and just a week before Overland was due to give evidence to it himself.
Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews was furious about this and immediately moved to take revenge on the council. He intervened first by firing his own responsible Minister, Adem Somyurek, and then appointing himself Minister for Local Government in his place. Premier Andrews then sacked the entire Whittlesea Council and replaced them with his own appointed administrators. This all happened within three months of Overland getting the chop.
The connection between Pell’s accuser and this political sewage pit came in June 2019 when Overland used his position as Whittlesea CEO to find a job for the then long-term unemployed Witness J. According to his CV on LinkedIn, the former choirboy was initially given the rather fuzzy title of “Contract Support Officer”. He later moved on to another position at the council, which I will not record here for legal reasons.
Given Overland’s track record of persuading police informants to make false accusations against public identities that have landed the latter with lengthy prison sentences, there is a connection here that cries out for further investigation.
When she delivered her final report in November last year about Lawyer X and other police informants, Royal Commissioner Margaret McMurdo recommended that, because Overland and several former detectives corrupted Victoria’s criminal justice system, they should be referred to a special investigator. This recommendation needs updating. Overland and Witness J should both be questioned further about the propriety of the latter’s Whittlesea council employment: who approached who to make it happen and when, who else was involved, and what kind of deal was done? In short, was it a reward to the choirboy for providing the bogus testimony that jailed George Pell?