A rocky road to justice

Victoria Police filed charges against George Cardinal Pell in June 2017. However, before that they had twice approached the Office of Public Prosecutions, in July 2016 and again in February 2017. The allegations of sexual assault made by the complainant were unsupported, indeed, they partly related to another boy who twice denied ever being abused as the police would have known when they interviewed the parents, most probably shortly after the first statement to the police in June 2015.

Or rather, they were virtually unsupported. A significant detail pressed by the new DPP Kerri Judd QC to the High Court of Australia (John Champion QC having retired in 2017) was that the complainant had a familiarity with the layout of the sacristy in which he was assaulted. This knowledge, it was claimed, supported the victim’s account as it indicated that his memory was reliable. In fact, the narrative of the events regarding the “first incident” was contextualised by that knowledge as the complainant could describe how the boys found altar wine in the room and how when Pell entered it he exposed himself. We may assume, then, that material would not be neglected in the police submissions.

In fact, in that six or seven month interim between late July and early February, the investigation had made considerable headway. Detectives Chris Reed and Paul Sheridan, accompanied by Assistant Commissioner Shane Patton, had interviewed Pell in October 2016. Reed, the person in charge of this case, described the allegations clearly indicating that he had some familiarity with the room, as indeed he had as he had organised a walk-through at the Cathedral attended by the complainant in March 2016. However, from what they learned from Pell, and from subsequent interviews with key witnesses mentioned by the Cardinal, it would have been obvious (as I shall show) that the complainant was far from reliable. These witnesses were MC Msgr. Charles Portelli who gave two statements 25 November 2016 and 6 December 2016 and sacristan Max Potter who was interviewed 5 December.

It would be interesting to know how this new knowledge informed the subsequent file sent by the police to the OPP.

To understand the relevance of this inquiry it is important to both understand the layout of the room and appreciate that the story related by Reed to Pell in Rome would change when the complainant went to trial. These have been detailed here.[i] Perhaps the focus regards a storage area described as a “storage kitchenette.”

By this I mean the furniture immediately to the left of the (double) door as one enters the (priests’) sacristy. It is displayed in at least two police photos (presumably taken at the walk-through, although they were never shown to Pell) and has two lockable doors, open in the pictures, and panelled with wood. Inside the space are two sinks (and even a bottle of wine) and more storage area with wood panels, four cupboards above the sinks, and four below them. Obviously, this is not the same furniture as the alcove in the corner of the room. In that space in the police photos (which never zoom in on this area) we can see a white door (leading to a vault where the wine was stored) and, barely visible, some shelves right in the corner of the room. Incidentally, the alcove was sometimes described as “slightly concealed.” It should be stressed that it was completely concealed to anyone leaning back on the double doors as the storage kitchenette clearly blocks the view.

The self-contained sink unit was well-described as a storage kitchenette and nothing else in the room could reasonably be described by that phrase. This is important as it would be claimed in court that the complainant, prior to the walk-through, had described the furniture immediately to the left of the door in just those terms. That particular claim, however, is not perfectly clear as only excerpts from the police statements (18 June 2015 and 31 July 2015) were tendered. What is clear is that the video of the walk-through, as referenced by Robert Richter QC in his closing address, shows the complainant in front of the storage kitchenette as being just the same the whole place was “eerily similar” to the scene of the crime in 1996.[ii]

Plainly, anyone anywhere can walk into any room and assert that it is as they had remembered even as they might assert that they recall the red altar wine that was used in Melbourne Cathedral in 1996 without ever being in the southern hemisphere. But such gratuitous assertions may well be inventions; mere assertion is no proof of reliability. That’s an obvious point to make, but it contains a trap for the unwary.

For the police would learn from Potter and Portelli that the sacristy of 2016 was not at all similar to the sacristy of 1996. In 2003 or 2004 the storage area aptly described as a storage kitchenette had the sinks installed so that in 1996 it was in fact a “wardrobe” (to quote paragraph 9 of Portelli’s statement on 6 December below). As Potter told the court it was used for hanging albs. It did not have the bi-fold wood-panelled doors but concertina doors made of vinyl with a woodgrain appearance. Of course, such furniture would not likely contain a bottle of wine. Clearly, this put a question mark on the complainant’s reliability even as the later discovery did that in 1996 only white wine was used at the Cathedral.

However, the real issue was not what the complainant’s ignorance said about his reliability but what his knowledge said about his credibility. This is the trap we might fall into. Faced with a complainant entering the sacristy (as per the walk-through video) we might wish to expose such an assertion that it was just as he remembered by demonstrating how wrong he was. The follow up might discuss whether, after all, a teenager would really know woodgrain from wood panel, red wine from white and so on; given the trauma, such details might not have been recalled perfectly. However, the key issue regards the fact that the post-2004 storage kitchenette was well described, and that knowledge would indicate coaching (or else a subsequent visit). The significant point is not what he said on entering the room but on what he had said prior to March 2016, or, to make the equivalent point, whether the March visit had vindicated what was said in his earlier police statements.

It does seem as though the phrase “storage kitchenette” had been used, but as indicated, this might not be perfectly clear. But the related issue regards the events that were remembered after Mass that Sunday. For the significant point (also easy to miss) was that it was in this storage area that the boys found wine, and that is where they were when Pell entered the room. And what Pell did when he entered was to notice the boys, rebuke them, and then, standing with his back to the doors, proceed to expose himself. This does not make sense if the boys were in a concealed place in the alcove. Moreover, Pell had been informed that he (Pell) then proceeded to shepherd the boys into the middle of the room. He was told that in the “summary document” sent to him prior to the Rome interview. This was referenced in the interview, and the detail heard in court. In any case, those details of Pell standing at the doorway, just a step away from the boys, who were later assaulted in the middle of the room (without locking the doors) were conveyed by Reed to Pell in October. In other words, the original allegation had the boys by the storage area where they first located the wine at the start of the incident. Certainly, during the interview no reference was ever made regarding the concealed alcove in the corner. The police appear never to have noticed it.

For these reasons, even if we suppose an honest inquiry up to March 2016 in which the police were able to think that the story was stacking up (as we might guess they told the OPP in July), from the time when it dawned on the police that the complainant had been accurately describing the furniture of the future (bulging with improbable bottles) it would have been obvious that the complainant was not telling the truth. How else could he have known about the kitchenette unless someone had told him? It seems quite absurd, however, to suppose that the police went to the OPP a second time and relayed what they had honestly found out. How could that give grounds for charging Pell?

But this was not the only discovery the police had made from Potter and Portelli. As the above-mentioned paragraph 9 stated:

Within the priests’ sacristy as you walk in through the double doors immediately on your left was a wardrobe with folding doors. Within this wardrobe were the personal vestments of the cathedral clergy. Immediately adjacent to that was a funny little arrangement with a small sink, a couple of shelves and then the walk in vault on the wall. This sink was properly named the sacrarium and was reserved for certain liquids only. It didn’t operate as per normal, but drained into the earth, not the sewer or stormwater. There was a small bar fridge as well, I can’t recall if it was above or below the sink. This area was hidden with folding doors that closed across the front.

So it turns out that there was a sink and a fridge in the room after all! But this was in the alcove (and it also had concertina doors Portelli has “folding”). Later on in court this area would be described as a storage kitchenette. I do not think that this is apt, but the court would hear that this is where the “action” would take place. The boys would enter the room and poke around inside until they got to the corner, discover the wine, hear the sound of Pell approaching, and then see him exposing himself on the move, towards the middle of the room. It’s very clear from the Rome interview, though, that these are new developments. Originally the “poking” took place in the corridors prior to reaching the sacristy, the wine was found in what Reed described as a “storage area” that had doors of “wood panel” and which was explicitly “immediately on the left” as one entered; Pell had exposed himself standing with his back to the doors (and the court would even hear that the complainant could remember that one was open and the other bolted, as per the police photos); and the movement to the middle was from the doors towards the centre (thus affording more privacy) and not from the alcove to the middle (affording less). It is obvious that by this stage the story was realised as untenable and had to be revised.

Beyond doubt, then, the complainant had been re-coached as a result of what the police discovered. Still, although the finger of suspicion clearly points to the police (who would surely have grasped what was going on when the new evidence was heard in court) it might be urged that it was not actually they who communicated with the complainant or his representatives. Perhaps someone else happened to get hold of what the police knew.

A judgement regarding the police culpability, however, can draw on what the police told the OPP in February 2017, just a couple of months after hearing from Portelli. For both Potter and Portelli had spoken of recalling the sacrarium – in the past tense (they had not worked at the cathedral since 2001). Moreover, I have been told that Portelli did not know for sure whether the sacrarium was still there until he inquired about it after the trial it is, apparently, though the court did not hear that fact. So it might easily be surmised that the jurors were thinking that the complainant knew of contemporaneous details, facts that could not be known from coaching (as opposed to the truth which was that he “knew” about details that, not being contemporaneous, could only have come from coaching). They were being bamboozled here by Mark Gibson SC who ten times referenced the alcove in his closing address. It would be interesting to know whether the police had tried to pull the same trick on the OPP.

Did the police, on 6 February 2017, suggest that subsequent inquiries had revealed that a “storage kitchenette” used to be in the corner of the room and that that was what the complainant had been referring to in his allegations? The complainant had done no such thing, of course, at least no record of this exists in the Rome interview which presumably the police referenced in their submission of July 2016. Neither had the police photographers shown the slightest interest in the sacrarium when they visited, presumably in March 2016, and not subsequently which would make sense if they imagined that the old sink was no longer there. The alcove was quite off the radar screen originally, but later on it was in the centre of the screen. It’s worth knowing whether this trickery was presented early on.

In court, illogically, traces of the old story would sit side-by-side with the new. Thus it was still heard that Pell planted himself in the doorway (something that could not be witnessed by boys in the alcove) and we even learn at one point that the boys noticed the storage kitchenette as they entered, incongruities that admit no reconciliation. However, in March 2020 we even find the new director Kerri Judd pressing the significant point that the complainant knew details of the layout that he could hardly have known given that the sacristy was pretty much always locked, and when it was unlocked it was busy a perfectly fair point, actually. Moreover, on two occasions the word “storage kitchenette” was uttered. On the first occasion there are two instances in which Judd implies that originally that was what the complainant said. We know that from the official video that also shows Gibson checking his watch. These references are redacted, however, from the official transcript. The second occasion is not redacted, and so represents the only “official” mention of “storage kitchenette” in the transcript. Judd is seen searching for the right word to use regarding the alcove area and fortunately Gibson is ready with le mot juste. It was, the DPP tells us, a “storage kitchenette.”[iii]

These matters of the complainant’s knowledge of the layout, then, are significant. It is worth knowing what the police told the OPP and whether what they said was accurate. They go beyond the issue of whether the investigation was shoddy (it surely was) but whether the police were actively engaged in perverting the course of justice.

(The writer Doctor Chris Friel taught maths for many years before undertaking, first, a masters in Philosophy, and second, doctoral research on value and credibility in the thought of Bernard Lonergan. In 2018 he investigated at length the “purposely timed hysteria” of the pro-Israel hawks in the UK amidst the antisemitism crisis, and commencing in 2019 has devoted an equally lengthy exploration of the Cardinal George Pell case and its context).

Also by Chris Friel: A just conclusion to the Pell saga | Inquiry of prosecution into Pell should follow High Court ruling | A case of the man who knew too much – The Pell saga | Trials and tribulations of Barwon’s highest profile prisoner | The final piece of the puzzle in the Pell case | Cardinal Pell – The Case for the Prosecution | Counsel for George Pell argues for conviction to be set aside | Reviewing the Pell appeal which goes before high Court on Wednesday | George Pell Case – The wine in the wardrobe revisited | Evidence in trial of Cardinal George Pell confusing and inconsistent | Hiatus theory in Pell trial looking increasingly wobbly | Cardinal George Pell conviction, uncanniest of them all | Where were the concelebrant priests if Pell was in the sacristy? | Juggling of times in Pell case only raises more questions | Pell alibi looms as crucial factor in High Court appeal | Chorister supported Crown case against Pell | The Pell case – “Having reviewed the whole of the evidence…” | Cardinal Pell’s Innocence or Guilt – now a matter for the High Court | Credibility of George Pell accuser under scrutiny | A Critique of Ferguson and Maxwell | How the Interview Changed the Story | Cardinal George Pell learned of charges against him in Rome Interview

Related story: High Court of Appeal in Australia to review conviction of Cardinal


[i] https://www.academia.edu/42272446/How_the_Jury_were_Convinced

[ii] For some of the transcript on “storage kitchenette” see: https://www.academia.edu/42135990/Evidence_on_the_Kitchenette_in_the_Priests_Sacristy

[iii] https://www.academia.edu/42245687/On_a_Redaction_in_Kerri_Judd

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