During the George Pell pile-on and earlier, David Marr and I were panellists on the ABC Sunday morning television program Insiders. Since there were a number of notable exchanges between us, many thought we were constantly on the program together. In fact, this was a relatively rare event—around twice a year. It was just that people remembered our disagreements—and there were quite a few on national and international issues.
On Saturday evening, August 17, 2013, I caught the 8 p.m. Qantas flight to Melbourne (where Insiders is filmed). I passed David Marr on the way down the aisle to my seat—he must have noticed me. When I got off the plane, I realised that David had waited for me—and we walked together towards the exit. Shortly before reaching the departure gates, David commented about his forthcoming Quarterly Essay on George Pell. It was due to be published the following month by Schwartz Media.
This is an extract from Gerard Henderson’s book
Cardinal Pell, the Media Pile-on & Collective Guilt,
published by Connor Court last month
I had declined an invitation to be interviewed for the 25,000-word essay. I was well aware of Marr’s views and work and knew it would be a hatchet job on Pell, to a greater or lesser extent, even though he had assured me—and, no doubt, others—that this would not be the case. My position was that if I spoke to Marr I would have given some authenticity to the essay—in that readers might believe that the author took seriously the views of people with whom he disagreed. This, in my experience, was unlikely to be the case.
Shortly before we entered the security gate, David said to me that Pell had declined to speak to him for the essay. In a matter-of-fact way, I merely responded that—from Pell’s point of view—this was a wise decision. Whereupon Marr exploded. He started yelling and swearing and declared that he had never been so insulted in all his life. I could only assume that his life had been spared offence—since my comment was mild, if not mundane. Marr became especially angry at my suggestion that his work was likely to be a hatchet job on Pell.
In the resultant loud argument, I held my own—without swearing. I was conscious of the fact that some people do not like to hear bad language. The argument simmered for a moment but it soon re-ignited again when David and I were placed in neighbouring spots on the taxi-rank. He continued to complain about my alleged offensive comment—as somewhat bewildered taxi passengers passed us on their way to the designated pick-up rank and then home. In time we, too, headed off on our separate ways—only to meet again at the ABC Southbank studio the following morning. By then, I had learnt that if the Marr bear was provoked, albeit unintentionally, he was destined to explode.
David Marr is a well-regarded journalist, author and commentator with a large fan club among the Left in Australia—which explains his ready access to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The ABC is a conservative-free-zone without one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent television, radio or online outlets. So it’s not surprising that Marr is a welcome guest on many of its programs. Between 2002 and 2004, he presented the Media Watch program on the ABC and then wrote for Fairfax Media (now Nine Newspapers, which publishes the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age) before moving to the leftist Guardian Australia in 2013. In the latter capacities, Marr has been invited regularly on ABC television and radio programs, particularly with reference to Cardinal Pell.
In his request for interviews, Marr presented his forthcoming work as a short biography of a high-profile Australian. The only existing book on Pell was Tess Livingstone’s biography published in 2002. When Marr’s essay was published, its title The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell revealed the author’s intention. It did so by linking the word abuse with the name George Pell. At the time I declined the interview request, I was not aware of the essay’s title—but I was not surprised when it was revealed.
The Prince commenced with a reference to the “cardinal … floundering” and “falling apart in front of the cameras” in his media conference on November 13, 2012—the day after Prime Minister Gillard’s announcement of the Royal Commission. It was a highly subjective view and somewhat hyperbolic. In spite of the hostile media pack and a difficult case to argue, Pell held his own.
In the first chapter of The Prince, there were references to Gerald Ridsdale, the Phillip Island incident, Peter Fox and Tony Windsor.1 And the essay concluded in mocking condescension about Pell’s commitment to celibate life—which the author just could not understand:
I have no reason to believe he is other than one of those rare priests who is totally celibate. But everything about him suggests he has paid a terrible price for this. He has had to gut himself to stay that way. All the rules he insists the world must follow are the rules he needs for his peculiar quest. As I read the man, listen to him and watch him in action, I wonder how much of the strange ordinariness of George Pell began fifty years ago when a robust schoolboy decided, as an act of heroic piety, to kill sex in himself. The gamble such men take is that they may live their whole lives without learning the workings of an adult heart. Their world is the church. People are shadowy. Pell is one of these: a company man of uncertain empathy. He has the consolations of friendship, music and a good cellar. And he has what inspired him from the start: a place in the highest levels of his church and a voice in the nation. He has power …
Marr is wont to refer to Catholic prelates having good cellars, fine wines, being well-fed and the like. However, The Prince contained little that was fresh—just a rehash of old allegations. Marr even supported the Stephen Crittenden/Sydney Morning Herald interpretation of Southwell QC’s inquiry—namely, that it had not cleared Pell. There was no way Pell was going to get a fair go in The Prince and he was wise not to speak with the author. Many hold strong views on Pell—for and against—but few share Marr’s view that he is ordinary.
Soon after the publication of The Prince, Cardinal Pell put out the following statement:
A predictable and selective rehash of old material. G.K. Chesterton said: “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” Marr has no idea what motivates a believing Christian.
It is the practice of Chris Feik, the Quarterly Essay’s editor, to publish a correspondence segment in the next issue about the previous essay. Sometimes individuals are invited to present their views—others submit them. The author is given a right of reply. The first letter published was from ABC presenter Geraldine Doogue, who was brought up a Catholic. She was never part of the Pell pile-on but nor was she a Pell supporter. Doogue wrote:
Unaccustomed as I am to find myself in easy agreement with Cardinal George Pell, I did approve of his response to David Marr’s essay. It was published in the same week that I was to conduct a Gleebooks conversation with David in Sydney, and I was intrigued as to how the essay’s subject would respond. Would he ignore David altogether? Would he forensically rebut all the accusations and the terrible timeline of clerical malfeasance and church neglect in Victoria? Would he try loftily to contextualise his decisions?
As it turned out, he chose none of those options but did comment and land some blows, in my view. “Marr has no idea what motivates a believing Christian.” That last statement especially rang true for me. My final sense was that for all David’s writing’s usual elegance and flair, it came with plenty of baggage, only some of it declared. And it didn’t wrestle sufficiently with its own conclusion: that, above all, Pell simply could not contemplate a world without an operating Catholic Church. So yes, his best efforts would always, always be expended on its behalf, without apology, because he believed he was acting, by proxy, in the long-term interests of the wider society. I think this is a correct core judgment on the perplexing Pell, the man David ultimately found somewhat empty and hollow.
I was not asked, and did not offer, to contribute to the correspondence segment. Nevertheless, in his response to Doogue and others, Marr took issue with a column I had written in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 1, 2013, about his essay:
The Prince is an essay with a purpose. Henderson complained: “Marr had chosen to depict Pell almost solely with reference to the sex abuse scandal.” But Gerard, that was the whole point of the exercise. It goes without saying that there is much, much more to be written about the man and the institution. There were those who regretted me not bringing a little sunlight to the text by giving some good news about the Catholic Church. This puzzles me. How can it be germane to the task at hand to record, say, the good work of St Vincent de Paul? Those who accuse me of writing a brief for the prosecution underestimate my ambition: I set out to deliver a judgment.
So, that’s clear then. The whole point of Marr’s essay was to focus on the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church—as if Pell was primarily responsible for this. It’s just that Marr declined to state, when seeking interviews, that his essay was not to be a balanced biography. The Prince did not present the case for the prosecution, but rather handed down a judgment of guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
MARR and I appeared on Insiders again on May 31, 2015. This time we met in the ABC’s green room in the Melbourne Southbank studio before the program went to air. On arrival, I was greeted with an angry Marr who called me a “lying shit” and “a f***ing shit”. His objection on this occasion was to my column in the Weekend Australian the previous day, in which I commented:
In his book The Prince, Guardian Australia journalist David Marr wrote that Pell (born 1941) “noticed nothing” when he shared accommodation at the Ballarat East parish in 1973 with [Gerald] 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 [Bongiorno], Pell is a social conservative who is the subject of a modern-day witch hunt.
In the Southbank green room, Marr loudly protested, while literally jumping up and down on one spot, that he had said on “hundreds of occasions” that he accepted that Pell did not know of Ridsdale’s offending when they shared accommodation in Ballarat East for a year. The following Monday, Marr sent me an email in which he wrote:
On Sunday before Insiders, while I was giving you a rich and full account of what a weird shit I think you are, I told you I have defended Pell on this point for years. Your disbelief was total. You insisted I was attacking the man. You demanded proof. Well here I am, for instance, on The World Today on 23 September 2013 …
It is true that on ABC Radio’s The World Today on September 23, 2013, Marr said that he accepted “entirely that Pell was unaware of Ridsdale’s activities at the time they shared the presbytery”. Sure, Marr made one statement to this effect—but not “hundreds” as he later maintained. And he did not make this point in The Prince (published in October 2013)—which will live on in print, in contradiction to one interview on a low-ranking midday radio program which disappeared with little, if any, attention.
The line “I noticed nothing” is very similar to the line “I know nothing” of the Sergeant Schultz character in the Hogan’s Heroes situation comedy. Readers of The Prince, as likely as not, would have taken Marr’s reference to Pell having “noticed nothing” as a pointer to what is frequently termed the “Sergeant Schultz defence”—with the implication that Pell did know something about Ridsdale.
Moreover, Marr made no mention of Bongiorno in The Prince—despite the fact that Bongiorno was on the record as declaring that he did not know anything about the fact that Ridsdale was a paedophile when they shared accommodation in Warrnambool. Clearly Marr had one rule for the conservative Catholic Pell and another rule for the liberal Catholic Bongiorno. Whatever Marr believed when he appeared on The World Today in September 2013, it did not find its way into the original issue of The Prince or its reprints.
David Marr and myself were on Insiders once more on July 9, 2017—shortly after Pell had been charged by Victoria Police with historical child sexual abuse. At the time Victoria Police had not advised as to how many charges Pell would face concerning an unspecified number of complainants. But Marr professed to know. Let’s go to the transcript—which commences with one Pell-antagonist (presenter Barrie Cassidy) talking to another (Marr):
Cassidy: David, how do you understand that this will proceed from here?
Marr: Well, um, there’s a lot of rhetoric around about how difficult it will be for this man to have a fair trial. And, without paying sufficient attention to what’s been done to protect his position—I mean, last week he was charged and in an almost unique move, Victorian Police did not say what the charges were … [But we know they are] multiple historical sexual assault offences involving multiple complainants. Now the usual way in which trials of this kind then proceed is for there to be separate trials for each complaint. And in Victoria, the usual way for those series of trials to proceed is that none can be reported until the final one is resolved.
Cassidy: Because one might impact on the other?
Marr: Because one would impact on the other. So, you could have a big trial which would be reported, or you would have a series of trials that could not be reported.
Henderson: Well they’re now—
Marr: No, just a second Gerard. So, it is highly likely that though these trials won’t be called secret trials, they won’t be held in camera. But it is highly likely that the public will know nothing of what he’s accused of, or the results of any of these trials, for perhaps four or five years.
Henderson: Well David, you don’t know that. You have no idea.
Marr: Well I’m, I’m only going—
Henderson: You don’t know …
Marr was engaged in wish fulfilment during his Insiders’ prophecy. Pell faced just one trial (which included a re-trial)—not a series of trials. And the whole case from the commencement of the first trial to the High Court decision took around nineteen months—not four or five years.
Pell’s conviction was made public on February 26, 2019. Soon after, Marr concluded an article in the Guardian titled, “Brutal and dogmatic George Pell waged war on sex—even as he abused children” with this gloating comment: “The world can now know that a little over 20 years ago, in Pell’s first months as archbishop of Melbourne, this scourge of sex was forcing choirboys to suck his penis.”
At 6 p.m. that night, Marr appeared in a panel discussion on the ABC’s The Drum. In spite of the fact that Marr is a trained lawyer and well aware of a convicted person’s right of appeal, he essentially told Pell’s supporters to accept the verdict and be quiet. Having criticised Andrew Bolt, Frank Brennan and Greg Craven (none of whom were on the panel), Marr declared:
a jury has decided that the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church ever has been guilty of these offences and he goes to jail tomorrow. And I think it is time, in looking at this horrible tragedy, to respect the victim, I think it is time, finally, to live up to the rhetoric of the Church about its great affection and respect for victims. This is the time.
There was a total of five panellists on the program—one of whom was the Australian’s Greg Sheridan, a Catholic who would be regarded by many as a Pell supporter. In the wake of the jury verdict, Sheridan did not state that the convicted man had a right of appeal. Nor did any other panel member. Nor did the presenter, Craig Reucassel.
After The Drum, Marr stayed in the ABC Sydney studio—since he was to appear on 7.30 later that evening. This time there was a panel of just two—both Pell-antagonists—Joanne McCarthy (of the Newcastle Herald) and Marr. Leigh Sales, another Pell-antagonist, was the presenter. She fed Marr such leading questions as “David, the hypocrisy of George Pell, the leader of the Church’s response in Australia to child sexual abuse, is very striking today”.
This led to Marr bagging Pell’s position on such issues as homosexuality, contraception, divorce, IVF for unmarried women—adding “he did the lot”. This overlooked the fact that Pell’s conviction had nothing to do with any of the above. Marr also sneered that Pell was “phenomenally eloquent on the subject of the benefits of priestly celibacy”. Neither McCarthy nor Marr discussed the issue of whether, in view of the media’s coverage of the case, a fair trial was possible. Nor did any of the Pell-antagonists draw attention to the fact that the jury in the re-trial was out for some four days before reaching its verdict. And no one mentioned Pell’s right of appeal.
Writing in the Guardian on February 27, 2019, immediately after Pell had been sentenced, Marr acknowledged Pell’s right to appeal but made the obvious point that he would be incarcerated before any appeal was heard:
By then Pell will be in one of the prisons where Victoria houses paedophiles. He will know so many of the faces, so many priests and brothers who have done what he continues to deny having done himself. What reunions there will be. For the first time since they shared the St Alipius presbytery at Ballarat in the 1970s, George Pell will be back under the same roof as the worst of the worst. He and Gerald Ridsdale will have so much to catch up on.
Once again, another sneer. Once again, another reference to the fact that for one year half a century ago Pell lived with Gerald Ridsdale. Once again, no reference to Bongiorno also having shared accommodation with Ridsdale for about a year. And, once again, a false prophecy—Pell was never to spend time with Ridsdale in prison.
When Pell appealed to the Victorian Court of Appeal, Marr was again interviewed by Leigh Sales on 7.30 about the case, on June 6, 2019. He made one mistake when reporting the two-day hearing—which 7.30 declined to correct.2 He also suggested that if Pell’s verdict was quashed by the Court of Appeal it would be reinstated by the High Court. Marr had run a similar line in the Guardian on June 1, 2019.
When Pell’s appeal was dismissed by a majority decision in the Court of Appeal, 7.30 yet again went to Marr for “expert” comment. On August 22, 2019, Marr told the program’s viewers that “it was by no means certain that the High Court will actually take the case and give it another review”. Wrong—it did. In this interview, Marr gratuitously advised those he termed “the most extreme barrackers for the Cardinal to at least admit that there is a basis on which he might be found guilty”. The invitation was not taken up and, in time, the High Court’s decision was welcomed by those whom Marr demeaned as Pell barrackers. Marr never criticised any of Pell’s antagonists.
Writing in the Guardian on April 7, 2020, immediately after the High Court’s decision, Marr commented that the High Court had said that it was possible for Pell to have sexually assaulted A and B “but not reasonably possible”. The High Court said no such thing. The test was not whether the accusations were possible or were reasonably possible—but whether they had been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Here, Marr made the same mistake as the majority judges in the Victorian Court of Appeal—in reversing the onus of proof.
David Marr was hopelessly wrong on the Pell case from beginning to end—a not uncommon occurrence when a commentator allows feelings to influence judgment.
Marr’s Quarterly Essay, The Prince, was printed in book form by Black Inc in May 2014—and again in November 2019 (after the Victorian Court of Appeal’s majority judgment) while the prisoner was in Melbourne Assessment Prison at the edge of the CBD awaiting the outcome of his appeal to the High Court. It concluded with a familiar sneer:
The cardinal will not be long in the city prison. He is bound for one of those jails in the bush where Victoria houses its paedophiles. He will know so many of the priests and brothers there.
More wish fulfilment. George Pell never served time in the Victorian country prisons where many convicted paedophile priests are imprisoned—including Ararat Prison in western Victoria where Gerald Ridsdale is living out his final years along with other notorious Victorian paedophiles—clerics and laymen alike.
It is not clear whether David Marr will add a segment to another edition of The Prince following Pell’s acquittal. In view of the High Court’s emphatic unanimous decision, this is unlikely. In the meantime, Marr continues to publicise the work of such Pell-antagonists as fellow Guardian employee Melissa Davey—even launching her book The Trial of George Pell via Zoom (on account of the pandemic) in late September 2020. Marr has done appearances with Pell-antagonists such as Louise Milligan, Lucie Morris-Marr and Sarah Ferguson. It would seem that he is the go-to “in conversation” partner for Pell-antagonists—none of whom has had the intellectual courage to defend their written or broadcast work against an informed Pell supporter. It’s a form of intellectual cowardice.
In his collected works My Country: Stories, Essays and Speeches (Black Inc, 2018), David Marr re-published an article originally printed in the Guardian on December 13, 2017. Marr (born 1947) wrote that when he “grew up on the sheltered Protestant North Shore of Sydney it was a given that when push came to shove the Catholic Church would obey Rome rather than the law”. Marr acknowledged that he worked to get “that fear” out of his system because he saw it as “religious bigotry”. The prejudice, he wrote, abated following the election of the Catholic John F. Kennedy as president of the United States in 1960. Yet, by the end of 2017, Marr “could see evidence everywhere … that the only law that really counted” to the Catholic Church “was the law of Rome”. It would seem that anti-Catholic religious bigotry, acquired in one’s Protestant youth, can live into older age.
Reviewing My Country in the Weekend Australian (January 12, 2019), Gerard Windsor suggested that Marr’s youthful bigotry has not completely been shed, commenting:
The Lord delivered George Pell into David Marr’s hands, but his animus goes wider than that. A 2010 piece for the Sydney Morning Herald on Mary MacKillop’s canonisation is done as a riff on the absurdity of miracles. It’s very funny, and it’s bigoted. Scorn delights the partisan, but it’s hardly the non-abusive debate whose absence Marr himself laments.
Earlier, in the review, Windsor wrote:
Marr does not do doubt. Just once in these 562 pages does he admit to his mindset being challenged … Otherwise Marr has the zealot’s righteousness. Abuse of a civilised kind is what he does well. It’s a patrician sniffiness that comes close to sneering without ever quite toppling in. Rather than argument, his weapon is a frequently ironic, pithy contempt.
To his journalistic credit, he can also do a piece of seemingly calm, detailed reporting where his sympathies nevertheless are the bottom line. So he summarises the 2008 saga of Bill Henson’s exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery as ‘‘the great press panic of my lifetime”. No rational person could consider Henson’s images pornographic, is his implied conclusion. Fair enough.
Ten years later what we miss is any discussion of what now must be the central issue of this case: the acceptability of a middle-aged man taking photos of naked 12-year-old girls. Passing up this opportunity seems an odd omission for a writer so incensed by clerical sexual abusers. Marr’s own moral code seems to be a selective libertarianism, but he never lays out any personal manifesto; we have to deduce it from what he is so bitterly opposed to.
Marr’s book The Henson Case (2008) contains several colour images of the artist’s photography of naked pre-pubescent girls. Which raises the point—what would David Marr have said in 2008 if a Catholic bishop, who was into photography, put on an exhibition including images of naked pre-pubescent boys? The evidence suggests—plenty. It’s another example of Marr’s prejudices leading to double standards.
Unlike many Pell-antagonists, following the High Court’s decision in George Pell v The Queen, David Marr has acknowledged that “Pell is innocent of these charges” (Guardian, April 7, 2020). He understands the presumption of innocence which applies to all Australians. The likes of Louise Milligan, Lucie Morris-Marr, Melissa Davey and Sarah Ferguson, on the other hand, give the impression that they do not really accept the High Court decision. They are not alone.
- In June 2002, George Pell was accused of having groped a boy while on a camp at Phillip Island in 1961 or 1962. Pell was a trainee priest at the time—aged 19 or 20. The boy was 11 or 12 years old. The matter was investigated by Alec James Southwell, a retired Victorian Supreme Court judge—who was not a Catholic. Southwell QC found that there were “some valid criticisms of the complainant’s credibility” and noted “the lack of corroborative evidence and the sworn denial of the respondent”. The retired judge was not satisfied that the complaint had been established.
- In his appearance on 7.30, David Marr was asked by Leigh Sales “whether one could get one’s penis out” of the robes that Pell wore at the Solemn Mass. Marr replied that “it was authoritatively stated by the three judges on the bench that you can actually have a piss while wearing this gear—and that being possible then, without other kinds of details, other things are possible as well”. The Victorian Court of Appeal made no such finding. I pointed this out by email to 7.30 executive producer Justin Stevens—but Marr’s error was not corrected.