How the Rome Interview Changed Choirboy’s Story

On the second of two days in June 2019, at the hearing 0f George Pell’s first appeal against his conviction of sexual abuse of two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, things did not appear to go well for the senior Crown prosecutor, Christopher Boyce. The proceedings were televised live and, in his address to the court, Boyce was nervous and uncertain in his response to questions from the Court of Appeal judges. At one stage he inadvertently named the choirboy whose identity was supposed to be publicly suppressed, causing the court to pause the recording and delete that part of his response.

However, Boyce subsequently redeemed himself with his colleagues when he described his own feelings about watching the video of the choirboy being cross-examined at the trial by defence counsel for several hours. Boyce told the court:

The responses that you see there, not only that you read there, but did you see there — and the manner in which they’re delivered; at the end of those, one puts down one’s pen and stares blankly at the screen and is moved. At that point, in my respectful submission, any prima facie at least, any doubt that one might have had about the account, prima facie, is removed.

Boyce’s declaration, ‘One puts down one’s pen and stares blankly at the screen, and is moved’,  subsequently became one of the most frequently quoted phrases about the case in both mainstream and social media[1]. It shored up any doubts that sympathisers with the choirboy might have had about the errors and inconsistencies in his evidence that Richter’s cross-examination had exposed. It also showed that, in a case of this kind, emotional rhetoric could outdo rational thought. It certainly had enough power to influence the two members of the three-judge appeal panel who rejected Pell’s appeal. The majority judgment of Justices Anne Ferguson and Chris Maxwell endorsed the prosecution’s perception of the choirboy’s performance in the witness box, as seen by the jury on video:

Both the content of the answers, and the manner of their delivery, were said to be such as to eliminate any doubt a juror might have had.  In our view, this was a very significant part of [the choirboy’s] evidence.  It was rightly characterised as compelling, both because of the clarity and cogency of what [the choirboy] said and because of the complete absence of any indication of contrivance in the emotion which [the choirboy] conveyed when giving his answers.[2]

However, there is other evidence, both outside and inside the legal proceedings, that proves some versions of the choirboy’s story must have been invented. No matter how honest and cogent he appeared before the camera, there was a wide range of inconsistencies between the evidence he first gave to police and the testimony he eventually gave in court.

In both editions of her book Cardinal (2017 and 2019) Louise Milligan records an interview she had with the mother of the deceased choirboy. This mother, who Milligan identifies by the pseudonym ‘Mary’, told her of a conversation she had with the surviving choirboy some time after the funeral of her son. The mother doesn’t say exactly when this conversation took place but it was some time between June 2015, when Pell’s name was first mentioned in the choirboy’s interview with police, and May 2016, when Milligan interviewed Mary,[3] who recalled: ‘He told me that himself and [my son] used to play in the back of the church in the closed-off rooms.’ ‘In the cathedral?’ Milligan asks her. ‘In the cathedral, yep. And um, they got sprung by Archbishop Pell and he locked the door and he made them perform oral sex.’[4]

Now, this version of the story is obviously incompatible with the one told at the committal hearing and the trial. In Mary’s version, there is no mention of the assault happening after Mass in the cathedral, or on a Sunday. Indeed, the choirboy’s talk of the ‘closed-off rooms’ at the back of the cathedral would not make sense if he was referring to a Sunday Mass because, although the rooms would be locked during the service itself, for much of Sunday mornings they were open for the use of cathedral staff, officials and other clergy.

At the trial, the choirboy insisted that when the alleged abuse occurred, it was the first time either boy had been inside the priests’ sacristy. But the choirboy’s statement to Mary indicates it was not the first time the boys had ventured into these ‘closed-off rooms’, since he said they ‘used to play’ there, implying they were inside the rooms often, or at least more than once.

For this version of the story to be credible, it needs to be accompanied by some indication of how the boys got into one of those closed-off rooms. The only room that would have been unlocked before or after choir practice was the Choir Room in the Knox Centre. If the choir ventured into the cathedral proper to practice, the three sacristy rooms — the utility or workers room, the priests’ sacristy and the archbishop’s sacristy, each containing valuable liturgical items — would always have been locked, especially against adventurous young trespassers exploring the cathedral after hours. So, the claim of the surviving choirboy to have easy access to the back rooms of the cathedral where they used to play, had some inherent problems that would eventually be recognized by the police assigned to investigate Pell.

In setting the scene for Mary’s revelation, Milligan puts it in the context not of a Sunday Mass but of choir practice in the cathedral, mostly on weekdays and weeknights:

The boys would practise four days a week, and two of those sessions would be at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Pell would drop in to watch the singing from time to time … The boys would start their rehearsals an hour before school two days a week and also on Sundays before Mass. They’d also have evening sessions at the cathedral once a week.[5]

Despite its obvious flaws, this version of the story — that the sexual abuse took place in one of the sacristies of the cathedral after choir practice on a weekday or weeknight — was accepted by Victoria Police for the first 16 months of their investigation, that is, from June 2015 up until October 2016, when they sent detectives Chris Reed and Paul Sheridan to interview Pell in Rome. It was police research, not Milligan’s investigation, that did most to establish the choir practice timetable she quotes. In their summary document, given to Pell before the interview outlining the charges against him, the police wrote that the offense took place ‘after choir’. Pell naturally understood this to mean ‘after choir practice’ on a weekday or weeknight. After reading this, Pell and his lawyers in Melbourne prepared their response. In the video recording of the interview with the two detectives in Rome, Pell said he drafted the initial response, and his legal advisors, Robert Richter and Michael do Rozario, then edited it. In the interview, Pell read out this prepared statement to the detectives, which included the following excerpt:

As Archbishop, I didn’t live at the cathedral. I lived in Kew [a Melbourne suburb about seven kilometres east of the cathedral] and only went there on Sunday Mass and for the big feasts. Whenever there I was always accompanied by a church official or officials. I had nothing to do with the choir and I didn’t know any choirboy in ’96. I was never present at choir practice and was never in the company of choirboys before, during or after choir practice.

Detective Reed then read from his own statement. The video records Reed doing this while fending off interruptions by both Pell and Michael do Rozario, the lawyer accompanying him in the room. There is clearly an important difference between the content of the summary document given to Pell and the version of the story read out by Reed.

Reed: On this occasion, what’s been alleged is that after Mass on a particular Sunday in that time frame, [two choirboys] were heading down the corridor and out towards the back, towards their robing room that the choir utilized, when they started poking around in various rooms they came across on their way through. Within one of these rooms —

Pell: that’s different from the account that I’ve received.

Reed: Is it?

Pell: Surely, perhaps it isn’t, go on.

Reed: Now, they were —

Pell: This is after Mass.

Reed: Yes.

Pell: After a Sunday Mass, that was the only time I was there.

Reed: After Mass, Yes?

Sheridan: When you said ‘the account you’ve received’, from where was that account?

Pell: I thought that was the stuff you gave me.

Sheridan: The summary we gave you?

Pell: Yes, I think it says that I came upon them they were drinking altar wine, discovered them drinking altar wine.

Reed: Yes, we’re getting to that.

Sheridan: Can I just clarify that? That’s the summary? There’s no other source in relation to these?

Pell: No, except what you’ve given me.

Sheridan: I thought you suggested there was another source of information.

Pell: No, No, I’ve got lots of other things to say on this but not through any official source.

Sheridan: I’m interested to hear that. I just wanted to clarify that.

Reed: Now, the circumstance I’m going through —

Pell: I thought it was after a choir practice, or before a choir practice.

Reed: No, this was after a, after a Mass.

Pell: Well, what happened after the Mass?

Reed: OK, so as I said, they were poking around, which is the term that was utilized.

Pell: That’s an unfortunate term. Where were they poking? What do you do when you’re poking around?

Reed: I take it to be that they were looking as they were walking along.

Pell: Go on …

Reed: Alright, I’ll go on with what they’ve alleged. They’ve found the wine and started to take a few swigs —

Pell: This is after Mass?

Reed: Yes, correct, yes, after Mass — that’s when, the information you have, as you were discussing a second ago, it states that’s when Archbishop Pell came into the room —

Pell: No, that’s not quite the, I never got the information it was after a Mass. It was after a choir practice, that came through to me, I think. That’s my recollection.

Rozario: (looking at summary document) Here it’s ‘after choir’,

Pell: After choir.

Reed: After choir

Rozario: (to Pell) That’s the table you quoted.

Reed: Sorry, it’s after singing choir, during Mass, well, after choir, after Mass.

Now, any juror paying attention to this exchange — the video was replayed in the Melbourne courtroom as trial evidence — must have heard that there was a serious difference between Pell and Reed about the facts in the document each had. The facts given to Pell put the alleged abuse after choir practice on a weekday or weeknight, when the cathedral would have been empty, with no audience for the choristers to sing to, and no cleaning up or de-vesting of the participants required in the back rooms. But the facts in the document read by Reed put the abuse on a Sunday morning after Mass during which the cathedral would have housed two or three hundred worshippers, and the back rooms in the sacristy area after the Mass ended would have been a ‘hive of activity’, as Pell’s later comments in the interview confirmed.

Some journalists covering the trial who saw the video did not think much of this difference. For instance, Megan Palin of news.com.au treated it as a simple misunderstanding by Pell and his lawyers of what the police actually meant. She wrote:

The summary referred to the crimes allegedly occurring ‘after choir’. The lawyers misunderstood that to mean after choir practice, which sometimes took place in the largely empty cathedral on a weeknight. In fact, police meant the abuse had taken place after the 60 choristers had sung at the liturgical highlight of the week — the so-called Solemn Mass that starts at 11am every Sunday.[6]

However, it is not hard to see something more significant than that. The summary written for Pell, and sent to him and his lawyers by the police before the interview, is actually the version of the story given earlier by the choirboy to his deceased friend’s mother some time between June 2015 and May 2016. This version says Pell found the boys after choir practice during the week, playing ‘in the back of the church in the closed-off rooms’. That is, the same timetable, the same reason for being in the cathedral, as ‘Mary’ heard from the choirboy.

The version of the story Detective Reed put to Pell in Rome in October 2016 was the later account used in the committal hearings and trial, that put the abuse in a very different location and social milieu. So rather than Pell and his lawyer misinterpreting the police’s intended meaning of the term ‘after choir’, it makes more sense to believe that Pell and Rozario were reading from a summary of the case drawn up and sent to them before the police decided to change their version of the story.

In other words, in the short time in which the detectives emailed their summary of charges to Pell and his Melbourne lawyers, packed their bags and flew to Rome, either they or their superior officers had decided the second story was the more credible version, especially after the inconvenient truth emerged late in the piece that Pell was never living at the cathedral and  unlikely to have been present at any choir practices during the week.

What this indicates is that the case against Pell was never some immutable truth embedded in the choirboy’s memory. It was an evolving story created by the police and their sole witness, which they treated as a work in progress, and one which they could, when confronted with obstacles or inconsistencies, change at will.

So the story that impressed the Crown prosecutor so much that he put down his pen and stared blankly at the screen was not the only version of these events told by the choirboy and those who coached him. Moreover, the later story was so different to the first version that it must have incorporated a whole new range of fictions about the timing and location of the alleged abuse, and who was doing what and when, all of which must have borne their own share of invention too. In other words, those who found the choirboy such an impressive witness were very easily persuaded.

Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant


[1] For example, see tweet of Lane Sainty, editor of Buzzfeed Australia, on 20 August 2019 and the response at: https://twitter.com/lanesainty/status/1164052633331437568

[2] Ferguson and Maxwell, George Pell v Queen appeal, 21 August 2019, par 87

[3] Milligan, Cardinal, 2019 edn., pp 354–5, 358

[4] Milligan, Cardinal, 2017 edn., p 352; 2019 edn, p 356

[5] Milligan, Cardinal, pp 348–9

[6] https://www.news.com.au/national/victoria/courts-law/key-piece-of-evidence-missing-from-george-pells-trial-with-potential-to-hurt/news-story/72046e0048bfe34720011824f8e96125

11 thoughts on “How the Rome Interview Changed Choirboy’s Story

  • Peter OBrien says:

    ‘After choir’ can only mean after choir practice. If the offence had occurred as now claimed they would have said ‘after Mass’, choir being only an incidental element of the main event.

  • Davidovich says:

    This article and another by Chris Fiel makes one wonder how Pell could ever have been charged let alone found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. ‘Fitted up’ is the term which most readily comes to mind.

  • Peter Smith says:

    This new piece by Keith and the accompaning piece by Chris Friel add to the huge weight of circumstantial and logistical evidence running counter to the charges against Cardinal Pell. But what is the evidence for the charges? A totally uncorroborated accusation of two dated events from one complainant. Apparently we are told that the complainant’s video evidence was convincing. Sorry, but fantasists, grifters, plausible liars, compulsive liars, congenital liars, those prone to manufacturing memories, would have no currency if they were not convincing, at least some of the time. We cannot have our individual freedom turning on the uncorroborated and improbable story of any one complainant. It is untenable. It stikes at the heart of our justice sytem. No one would be safe from unruly and vindictive police if this travesty of justice is allowed to stand.

  • DG says:

    Peter O’Brien is correct. I imagine no news reporter was familiar with high church (RC or Anglican) practice and would not know that a church service was never referred to as ‘choir’ but as ‘mass’ or ‘church’ or ‘eucharist’. In over 40 years of church familiarity, I have not heard any usage other than this. ‘Choir’ denoted the practice sessions. My parents thus used the word, as did my friends, church officials, the choral director.

  • Stephen Due says:

    “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Deuteronomy 19:15 (dated over 2500 years ago).

  • Stephen Due says:

    I too agree with Peter O’Brien. Based on my experience as a church choir member, I would say “After choir” could only mean after choir practice. It could not possibly mean after the church service.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Suppose the original scenario was indeed the abuse of choirboys by Pell after choir in a building that presumably was more or less deserted. Changing the scene to the time immediately after mass clearly introduces unforeseen complications. Suddenly there are people everywhere, and the time available for the abuse scenario is reduced to an uncomfortably short few minutes. If the evolution of the choirboy’s evidence did follow those lines, it demonstrates more than anything the likelihood that the real objective of the police pursuit of Pell was not justice but something rather different.
    Having followed, as a middle manager, the evolution of fraudulent workers’ compensation claims against an employer, this seems entirely plausible to me. The argument for compensation is often given a series of cautious trial runs, in which the complainant discretely tests the waters for possible objections, and makes adjustments accordingly. I have observed this process several times – it is fascinating to watch.

  • PT says:

    Clearly the main Sunday service would never be referred to by anyone as “choir”, certainly not anyone who’d ever had much to do with it.
    Firstly it demonstrates lack of knowledge by the police about something that would have been common knowledge not so long ago. But the idea that “the kid” was coached is the most sinister aspect of this sordid affair so far. If the police pushed the accuser to the point that the “kid” made such significant changes to the tale (that is an “if”), then his tale should have collapsed, and the police should have dropped the case. It would be like Blasey Ford in her testimony changing the story from being at a nighttime party to an afternoon Wedding, with many more people in attendance. Such a switch destroys the credibility (such as it is) of the tale. Yet this is what the “kid” did if this interpretation is correct! As I see it, there are two possible explanations as to why the police continued to pursue this case: the first is this “always believe the victim” garbage. You only have to make an accusation to be officially designated “the victim”, and cases in the UK shows where this leads! The other possible explanation is even worse, and very sinister! That is the Vic Police were intent on charging and convicting Pell to the point of doctoring the accusation itself! If this is true, the force itself should be open on trial! This is worse even than fabricating evidence to support an allegation, as they would be fabricating the evidence that a crime even occurred!

  • pdc says:

    It is of grave concern that during the October 2016 Rome interview the summary document provided to Cardinal Pell of the allegations against him was a different, apparently an earlier, document from the one that the Police held and were referring to. Why was this vital information not available sooner?

  • tbeath says:

    Personally, I’m not a Catholic and admit to finding Pell a person I find a tough old fighter and not my type of person. However, he was the victim of a continual, adverse media trial, that carried over into the courts I feel. Just as we are currently seeing the fetish to buy dunny paper, the same group irrationality went for him. He was guilty, no evidence required.
    I do not know if he was, in fact, guilty, but feel this whole thing stinks. (Blooming heck, me an atheist too!)

  • tbeath says:

    Personally, I’m not a Catholic and admit to finding Pell a tough old fighter and not my type of person. However, he was the victim of a continual, adverse media trial, that carried over into the courts I feel. Just as we are currently seeing the fetish to buy dunny paper, the same group irrationality went for him. He was guilty, no evidence required.
    I do not know if he was, in fact, guilty, but feel this whole thing stinks. (Blooming heck, me an atheist too!)

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