AP NEWS

Australia jury hears cardinal’s side in police interview

February 26, 2019
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Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Cardinal George Pell once blamed his wooden public persona on the self-discipline required to contain “a formidable temper.”

That anger bubbled through the former Vatican finance minister’s composure as he was interviewed by Australian police in a conference room at the Hilton Airport Hotel in Rome on Oct. 19, 2016. Det. Sgt. Chris Reed for the first time detailed to Pell allegations that he had orally raped two choirboys in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral while he was archbishop of Australia’s second-largest city 20 years earlier.

Pell appeared incredulous, distressed and outraged. He grimaced and waved his arms over his head, crossed them tightly across his chest and muttered to himself as the detectives detailed the accusations that one of the alleged victims leveled against him a year earlier. Pell’s lawyer Michael do Rozario, a Sydney law firm partner, sat beside him and remained largely silent throughout the interview, 45 minutes of which was shown to the jury in the final week of Pell’s trial and retrial.

Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse, was convicted in December, but the court had until Tuesday forbidden publication of any details about the trial. He faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term.

“The allegations involve vile and disgusting conduct contrary to everything I hold dear and contrary to the explicit teachings of the church which I have spent my life representing,” Pell read from a prepared statement early in the police interview in response to a summary of the allegations presented by detectives to his lawyers in advance of the interview.

“They’re made against me knowing that I was the first person in the Western world to create a church structure to recognize, compensate and help to heal the wounds inflicted by sexual abuse of children at the hands of some in the Catholic Church,” he added.

Pell was referring to his role at the vanguard of helping victims of clergy sex abuse as the instigator of the Melbourne Response, a compensation scheme for abuse victims established by Pell in 1996, within months of him becoming archbishop of Melbourne and around the time his crimes allegedly began.

During the trial, Reed told the jury that he had never before presented a suspect with such a summary of the allegations before a recorded interview. But the summary was one of the demands made by Pell’s lawyers before Pell would agree to be interviewed in Rome, where Australian police have no jurisdiction and Australia has no extradition treaty.

On the allegation that he had cornered two 13-year-old boys in a back room of the cathedral and exposed an erect penis from his robes, Pell responded: “Oh, stop it. What a load of absolutely disgraceful rubbish. It’s completely false. Madness.”

On the accusation that he knelt masturbating while fondling one of the boy’s bare genitals, the cardinal responded: “After Sunday Mass? Well, need I say any more? What a load of garbage and falsehood and deranged falsehood.”

Pell warned the police that if he were charged on allegations that he described as “products of fantasy” and “fundamentally improbable,” the reputational damage would be done before any verdict.

“Immeasurable damage will be done to me and the church by the mere laying of charges which on proper examination were later found to be untrue,” Pell said.

Despite receiving the summary of the allegations, some aspects of the interview appeared to take Pell and his lawyers by surprise.

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 11 a.m. every Sunday. The grand service is attended by several priests and altar servers while attracting hundreds of worshippers.

On clarifying that the crimes allegedly occurred in a sacristy after Mass, Pell told police, “That’s good for me because it makes it even more fantastical.”

“The sacristy after Mass is generally a hive of activity,” Pell said. “You could scarcely imagine a place that was more unlikely to be (the scene of) committing pedophilia crimes than the sacristy of the cathedral after Mass.”

Because Pell chose not to take the witness stand, the police interview was the jury’s only glimpse of the defendant’s personal reaction to the crisis that was enveloping him.

Apart from saying “Not guilty” in a firm and defiant voice when five charges were read at the outset of the trial, Pell remained silent.

He made an unusual show of respect by standing for the jury as it entered and left the court during the first trial, which ended in a deadlocked jury in September.

He was frailer by the second trial in November and December, using a crutch because he required two surgical knee replacements. He did not stand for the jury.

Before the police interview, Pell’s lawyers had been engaged with Victoria state police for months.

The second choirboy died of a heroin overdose in 2014 without making a complaint to police. Pell’s explanation to police of why the allegations against him did not stack up closely mirrored the reasons his lawyers put to the jury as to why they should find the cardinal not guilty.

He said he would always talk to members of the congregation at the front of the cathedral immediately after Mass, when the crimes allegedly occurred. He also said that he was never alone in the sacristy, where the offenses allegedly took place, and that altar servers and priests were always nearby and could walk in at any moment. He said the sacramental wine that he had allegedly caught the choirboys swigging before abusing them was always kept locked in a safe.

Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter told the jury that it made no sense that Pell would be sexually abusing children at the same time he was encouraging abuse victims to come forward with their allegations through the Melbourne Response.

“Only a mad man would attempt to rape boys in the priest’s sacristy immediately after Sunday Solemn Mass,” Richter told the jury.

“Who in their right mind — and no one has questioned the mind of Cardinal Pell — ... would take the risk of doing what (the complainant) says happened? Did the archbishop have some kind of mental breakdown?” Richter added.

Prosecutor Mark Gibson told the jury members that they could reject Pell’s “emphatic denials” made in the police interview beyond reasonable doubt.

Pell said in an Australian television interview weeks before his interview with police that the public perception of him as “wooden” was wrong.

Standing a solidly built 193 centimeters (6 feet, 4 inches), with conspicuous intelligence and a reputation for never flinching from conflict, Pell has been a powerful presence both physically and in personality. He was offered a contract to play professional Australian Rules Football, but chose the seminary instead.

“I wasn’t a bad footballer. I was very fiery,” Pell said. “I’ve got a formidable temper which I almost never show, but the discipline that is needed by me not to lapse in that way I think helps explain my wooden appearance.”