Cardinal George Pell says he believes “culture wars” and his conservative views on social issues contributed to him being prosecuted and jailed on child sexual abuse charges — convictions that were overturned by the nation’s highest court last week.
- George Pell was speaking in his first TV interview since being released from prison last week
- Cardinal Pell said he felt sorry for his accuser
- He said he hoped to visit Rome again but would make his home in Sydney
The High Court last week unanimously quashed Cardinal Pell’s convictions and acquitted him of abusing two choirboys at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1990s, finding there was the significant possibility that an innocent person had been convicted on evidence that did not establish guilt “to the requisite standard of proof”.
The 78-year-old consistently maintained his innocence throughout the legal proceedings.
In his first television interview since being freed from prison, aired on Sky News on Tuesday night, Cardinal Pell suggested much of the hostility towards him may be explained by his conservative views.
“A lot of people don’t like my views. I’m a social conservative,” he said.
“Certainly people don’t like Christians who teach Christianity, especially on life and family and issues like that. They get very, very cross,” he said.
“The culture wars are real.
“There is a systematic attempt to remove the Judeo-Christian legal foundations, with the examples of marriage, life, gender, sex, and [towards] those who oppose that, unfortunately there’s less rational discussion and there’s more playing the man.
“More abuse and intimidation, and that’s not good for a democracy.”
Asked by interviewer Andrew Bolt if he considered himself a victim of a culture war, Cardinal Pell replied: “I think that contributed.”
Hours before the interview aired, NSW Police’s Counter-Terrorism Squad visited Cardinal Pell at the western Sydney seminary where he is staying to discuss threats to his security.
In a statement, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said the officers visited Good Shepherd Seminary in Homebush to discuss threats Cardinal Pell had received via social media since arriving in Sydney last week.
In the Sky News interview, Cardinal Pell said he felt sorry for the former choirboy who accused him of abuse.
Asked what he thought had motivated his accuser, Cardinal Pell responded: “I don’t know. I wonder whether he was used.”
“Our memory is so fallible.
“I don’t know what this poor fellow was up to.”
Cardinal Pell said the pendulum of justice should not swing too far “so that every accusation is regarded as gospel truth”.
He said there was a risk society would move to a position where people were found guilty by accusation.
“It’s not a sign of a civilisation where you have guilt by accusation, these things have to be tested respectfully,” Cardinal Pell said.
“The pendulum 30 or 40 years ago was massively against anybody who said that they’d been attacked.
“Nowadays, we don’t want it to swing back so that every accusation is regarded as gospel truth.
“That would be quite unjust and inappropriate.”
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Bolt, who has been a consistent supporter of Cardinal Pell throughout the legal process, said the charges put against him were “so stupid not one has survived the process”.
He asked whether Cardinal Pell believed Victoria Police “had an agenda” when pursuing charges against him.
“I don’t know how you explain it but it is certainly extraordinary,” Cardinal Pell said.
When asked if he expected Victoria Police to continue “trawling for victims” in order to lay more charges, Cardinal Pell said he “wouldn’t be entirely surprised”.
“But who knows, that’s their business,” he said.
Asked at a press conference on Tuesday whether Victoria Police had a vendetta against Cardinal Pell, Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said: “I don’t have any comments to make at all in respect to Cardinal Pell.”
Pell hits out at ABC coverage
During the interview Bolt asked Cardinal Pell: “Does the ABC’s role in your persecution concern you?”
“Yes it does,” Cardinal Pell replied.
“Because, I mean, it’s partly financed by Catholic taxes.”
Cardinal Pell said he believed in the principle of free speech but accused the ABC of presenting only one view.
“I acknowledge the right of those who differ from me to state their views,” he said.
“But in a national broadcaster to have an overwhelming presentation of one view, and only one view, I think that’s a betrayal of the national interest.”
In a statement issued in response to Cardinal Pell’s comments, an ABC spokesperson said the corporation had “always acted in the public interest” in its reporting on Cardinal Pell’s case.
The spokesperson said “at every stage” the ABC had sought a wide range of opinions on the case, including from Cardinal Pell himself, his supporters and independent experts.
The ABC’s editorial director, Craig McMurtrie, has previously defended the organisation’s coverage of Cardinal Pell’s case, which he argued was “unquestionably a legitimate story, one that had to be pursued”.
He said the ABC had published the Cardinal’s statement and the High Court’s judgement summary in full online and on the ABC News Channel on the day of his release.
Cardinal Pell spent more than 400 days in jail before being freed on April 7.
He described the unit where he was housed in Barwon Prison, near Geelong, as a “grim place” but said he was treated with decency and kindness by prison officers and other inmates.
Cardinal Pell had a kettle and TV in his cell, and settled into a routine of prayer, reading, writing and daily exercise.
He said he received about 4,000 letters.
“I never felt forsaken,” he said.
But he said at his lowest moments he had wondered: “My God, what are you up to?”
“There were thousands, if not more, people all over the world praying for me and I seriously believe that one reason that I coped so well with the adversity was the prayers of all these people,” he said.
Cardinal Pell said the church had not contributed to his legal defence. He said he had dipped into his superannuation and savings to cover his legal bills, but still had some left.
He said he had also received financial support from many supporters, “some of them wealthy people who kicked in very solidly, a lot of them Christians and Catholics who weren’t very wealthy people”.
He said he had been “wounded” but “not scarred” by his ordeal.
“The solace is that I was cleared,” Cardinal Pell said.
He described hearing an “enormous cheer” from his cell on Tuesday morning when the news broke that his convictions had been overturned.
Asked about his plans for the future, Cardinal Pell said he would turn 79 in a few months’ time and did not intend to become a commentator on Australian Catholic life.
He said he hoped to visit Rome again but intended to make his home in Sydney.
Timeline of events in Cardinal Pell’s case:
- 2015: A former choirboy alleges to Victoria Police he and another boy were sexually abused by George Pell in the 1990s, shortly after he became archbishop of Melbourne
- February, 2016: The Herald Sun newspaper reveals a Victoria Police taskforce is investigating Cardinal Pell for historical child sexual abuse, the first time the investigation is made public
- October, 2016: Detectives question Cardinal Pell in Rome about a number of allegations. The Cardinal denies any wrongdoing
- June 29, 2017: Cardinal Pell is charged with historical child sexual abuse offences. He says he is looking forward to his day in court
- June 29, 2017: The Pope grants Cardinal Pell leave to return to Australia to fight the charges
- May 1, 2018: Cardinal Pell pleads not guilty after being committed to stand trial for historical sexual offences. The most serious of the charges against him are struck out
- August 15, 2018: A trial into the allegations Cardinal Pell abused two choirboys when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s begins at the County Court of Victoria
- September 20, 2018: The jury is unable to reach a verdict and is discharged
- November 7, 2018: A second trial begins
- December 11, 2018: A jury finds Cardinal Pell guilty of one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child. A suppression order banning all reporting on the trial is in place until the delivery of a verdict in another case
- February, 2019: The other case, relating to separate historic sex offence allegations, is dropped by Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions
- February 26, 2019: The suppression order is lifted and the guilty verdict is made public
- March 13, 2019: The County Court of Victoria sentences Cardinal Pell to six years’ jail, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months
- June 5 – June 6, 2019: The Victorian Court of Appeal hears two days of legal argument as Cardinal Pell appeals against his convictions on three grounds
- August 21, 2019: The Victorian Court of Appeal unanimously rejects two of the grounds for appeal, and a 2-1 decision rejects the third ground. Cardinal Pell’s convictions are upheld
- March 10 – March 11, 2020: The full bench of the High Court of Australia hears two days of legal argument from Cardinal Pell’s legal team and Victorian prosecutors. The court reserves its decision
- April 7, 2020: The High Court of Australia delivers its decision in Brisbane, quashing Cardinal Pell’s convictions. He is freed from prison