TO SHOUTS, jeers, a media scrum and chaotic scenes outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court, Cardinal George Pell made his first appearance in what is predicted to be a drawn-out case into allegations of historical sex offences.
In scenes reminiscent of other high-profile cases such as the trial by media of Lindy Chamberlain, the Cardinal’s first stoic, silent fronting to the court, that has either satiated or whetted the public and media’s appetite, has also left no one the wiser about what exactly he is charged with.
“Historical sex offences” and “matters that have been under investigation for two years” are some of the phrases that have been thrown around in explanation, but the fact remains that the details of the allegations have not been made publicly available.
On this perplexity, The Guardian columnist David Marr wrote of his coverage of the filing hearing, “My apologies. I can’t tell you what’s going on. A great billowing, lace-edged cloak of secrecy still surrounds the case of the Director of Public Prosecutions v. G Pell.
“Months down the track, we don’t know what the charges are. Even if they fell into my lap, I would not say a word. Why not? Sorry, that’s a secret too.”
And that, Catholic parishioner Michael Curtin said, is forcing the public to make a decision when there isn’t yet enough information.
“I felt the media scrum and police herding of Pell into the courtroom intensified the urgency for me to decide about his innocence/guilt in relation to the charges. That was painful, because I do not know what the charges are nor anything about the complainants,” he said.
“It is painful because I am being called by this frenzy to make a decision about what will come nearest to being decided in the court case. For this reason the frenzy was too prematurely experienced by those who do not know the innocence or guilt of Pell.”
Curtin is involved in both the Courage Ministry group that supports same-sex attracted people, and the Emmanuel Catholic community, although did not speak on their behalf.
So when will the evidence and charges against Pell become public?
Prosecutor Andrew Tinney, SC, said Wednesday that prosecutors would give Cardinal Pell’s legal team a brief of evidence by Sept 8 or even sooner.
It then still has to be committed for trial, a fact Magistrate Duncan Reynolds made clear as he adjourned the case after just six minutes until October 6.
“It’s only if the accused is committed to trial that he will be called upon to enter a formal plea,” Mr. Reynolds said.
Despite the lack of information on the charges, the crowd was vocal, calling out criticism and abuse, but also support. The Sydney Morning Herald reported a woman holding a sign that read, “Thanks for helping our family” and other bystanders calling, “Fair trial for George Pell”.
Curtin said comments outside the court room such as “Shame on you George Pell,” and “How does it feel?” seemed to suggest these people had inside knowledge about the past conduct of Pell and that he was a paedophile.
“‘A fair trial’ was a fair comment, for even a fair trial may find him guilty. I think he is prepared for that eventuality. But I suspect he wants to express something in any trial… the proper place for decision.”
Another Catholic parishioner in Brisbane, who didn’t want to be identified, said, “I expected that there would be comments from the crowd but it is the way the scene is reported that concerns me. (Comments like) ‘The cardinal did not respond to the comments and showed no emotion as he left the court building’ is perpetuating the stereotype of a man without feelings.”
While Pell’s silent and stoic persona in fronting all charges so far may have influenced some, it is par for the course for Catherine Smibert. Smibert is a journalist who grew up in Pell’s hometown of Ballarat where he served as a priest from 1973 to 1983. She was also employed by the Vatican media in Rome for eight years and had seen the difference between people’s public and private persona in the Vatican offices.
“As a journalist you know a person can be different when cameras are on and off. Pell, when the cameras are off, like Ratzinger, is exceptionally warm, truly warm, and has a capacity for pastoral care that is second to none.”
She also said, “He just wants to get on business. It is frustrating when you know you’re innocent and in the right and this stuff keeps coming up in your face and distracting you from the core business, and we know in the realm of PR that perception is everything.”
Curtin said, “One can easily imagine an innocent man looking like and sounding like George Pell. He is not innocent of being a bad-mannered man, but may be innocent of sexual abuse, where he faces the character assassinations in honest complaint against the charges and public process.”
The media was warned yesterday by the prosecutor, Andrew Tinney SC, against speculating on the prospect of a fair trial.
However Pell of course must first be committed for trial. But as with a lot of things in this case, the strength of this is by no means assured, and he may yet be free to go.