Few events have stirred up as much public conversation in Australia as the trials, guilty verdict and eventual High Court acquittal of Cardinal George Pell. Australian Jesuit Fr Frank Brennan was uniquely placed in that conversation, offering valuable insights into the legal issues and religious practices that became central to understanding the case.
Connor Court Publishing has recently released a book, Observations on The Pell Proceedings, bringing together Fr Frank Brennan’s contributions.
The publication draws together Fr Frank Brennan’s articles, interviews, social media posts, homilies and other commentary about both the trials and appeal, as well as the Royal Commission’s findings released thereafter.
If you’ve followed his contributions in recent years you may have read or heard much of this material. Even so, the publication makes for a helpful wrap-up of the proceedings, and an important historical record of the broader issues the two trials of Pell (a second trial was required because the jury could not reach a verdict in the first trial) brought to light.
Although (and perhaps in part because) they had clashed publicly many times in the past, Fr Frank Brennan was invited by Cardinal Pell to be an observer at the trials. By agreement with his Jesuit Provincial, the Australian Catholic bishops then commissioned Brennan to attend proceedings and to offer commentary on the conduct of the proceedings once the suppression orders had been lifted – noting that “any commentary needs to be seen, as much as is possible, to be clear, objective and impartial”. Brennan notes in the introduction to the book that he agreed out of a concern that “the public, and particularly Catholics, were entitled to accurate information about the closed proceedings”.
The author makes it clear that his commentary around the trials, verdict and appeals process was about respecting the processes of the law. As he noted to Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast at the outset:
“I think this case will be a test of all individuals and institutions involved. All we can do is hope the outcome will be marked by truth, justice, healing, reconciliation and transparency… But what is absolutely essential is the law be allowed to do its work. And let’s hope there can be truth and justice for all individuals involved in the proceedings.”
A suppression order prevented any media reports of the verdict for some months. In addition to attending parts of both trials, Brennan was given access to all publicly available transcripts and was able to use those months to get a fuller picture of the prosecution’s case and the contributions of the witnesses. Once the verdict was announced in February 2019, he published an article in The Australian and gave three interviews on the case, all of which are included in the book.
Limiting his commentary to the case itself, Brennan sought to provide a reasoned and dispassionate response to the legal intricacies from someone familiar with the goings-on at the Cathedral where the crimes were alleged to have occurred. However, that didn’t prevent him from being criticised, particularly by those who saw him first as a cleric defending a fellow cleric.
That criticism was explicable by the strong emotion which attended the lifting of the suppression orders after the trials and the public broadcast of the sentencing of Cardinal Pell. On the one hand, was a complainant whose evidence was described as ‘thoroughly credible and reliable’, and Brennan himself acknowledges this in his commentary. On the other hand, there were 22 other witnesses who gave evidence about their usual routines at a Solemn High Mass which contradicted the complainant’s account, and their honesty was not questioned either. Ultimately, the conviction was overturned.
Then there was Pell himself – a figure already widely pilloried for his response to abuse. There were many who wanted to bring Pell to justice not just on behalf of the complainant but for all people who had been abused in the Catholic Church. Others, particularly among Catholics, couldn’t accept that a pastor they admired and respected could be guilty of such heinous crimes, despite the many previous occasions where Catholics in positions of power had abused that trust.
In a Facebook post, included in the book, Brennan acknowledges the difficulty of providing any commentary in such a fraught environment: “I am acutely aware that anything said by a Catholic priest on these issues at this time will cause hurt to some people, and motivations etc will always be questioned…. Some have suggested I should have said nothing at all. I respectfully disagree. That would have left the field largely to those journalists who attended the trial, some of whom have a limited understanding of the law, and some of whom display a lack of accuracy as they seek to paint their own picture of the proceedings.”
The journalists who attended and wrote on the Pell trial aren’t the only ones to come under scrutiny. Questions are also raised about the police investigation and the conduct of prosecutors, particularly in putting the case to the High Court. There is also a deeper look at the adverse findings of the Royal Commission about Pell in his time in Ballarat and as auxiliary bishop in Melbourne. Much like in the criminal trial, Brennan wonders how evidence that might have absolved Pell is ignored or dismissed in favour of a belief that he must have known of the abuse.
The issues raised in this commentary are important ones for society. In the aftermath of the Royal Commission, the #metoo movement, and recent developments in Canberra, many are rightly wondering how we can overcome the difficulties victims of sexual assault face in coming forward and being believed, and how this can be balanced with the rights of those who are accused to be treated fairly.
These ongoing conversations will ensure Brennan’s contributions on the Pell case will remain relevant for years to come.
Observations on the Pell Proceedings, by Frank Brennan SJ. Connor Court Publishing, 2021.
Michael McVeigh is the editor of Australian Catholics.
Reproduced with permission from Australian Catholics, a publication of Jesuit Communications Australia.