Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett endured a deeply uncomfortable 10 minutes on Channel 7’s Sunrise program this morning as hosts Samantha Armytage and Natalie Barr grilled him about George Pell.
The discussion centred on former prime minister John Howard’s decision to write a glowing character reference for Pell after he was found guilty of child sex offences.
“I am aware he has been convicted of those charges, that an appeal against the conviction has been lodged and that he maintains his innocence in respect of these charges. None of these matters alter my opinion of the Cardinal,” Mr Howard wrote.
He went on to describe Pell as “a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character”.
Mr Kennett appeared on Sunrise today alongside One Nation’s Mark Latham.
“Jeff, I guess particularly for John Howard to write a reference for Pell after the conviction was handed down — do you question that judgment?” Armytage asked Mr Kennett.
“No I don’t. Individuals are quite able to make decisions themselves, and I don’t think they should be attacked because they exercise a personal decision,” he responded.
“John and the Cardinal obviously knew each other well, and he felt so disposed to write that letter, as did Tony Abbott. I don’t think you can criticise people just because they want to defend someone.”
“But Jeff, John Howard is a very intelligent man. A jury convicted George Pell of sex offences against children. Do you really not questioned John Howard’s judgment in supporting him?” Armytage said.
“Look, I know it is easy to be critical, and I accept the legal system as it is. I can’t reconcile what has been decided with the person I knew, but there again, I didn’t hear the evidence, and I accept the decision,” Mr Kennett said.
“But please don’t undermine an individual for simply exercising his or her right based on their knowledge of any other individual. I don’t think you can attack John Howard or Tony Abbott or anyone else who wants to stand up.
“I have done that in the past. You do it for friends, you do it on the basis of your relationship with them. I don’t think you’ve got the right to attack someone simply because they are exercising their democratic right.”
“So Jeff Kennett, do you support George Pell?” Barr asked.
“I have known George. I’m not a Catholic. I know he has his detractors within the church, and upheld the directions from Rome very directly, and that upset a lot of people on the other side,” he said.
“I wasn’t there, I didn’t hear the evidence. But this all happened in 1996.”
“Jeff, as he stands today — forget his record — as a convicted paedophile today, do you support George Pell?” Barr interjected.
“Sorry, do you want to hear my answer or not?” he sniped back.
“Yes,” she said.
“Righto. So in 1996, I was premier. I called in George Pell. This was the height of the paedophilia issue. And I said to him then: ‘George, you’ve got to sort this out, or I will sort it out.’ Now I had no authority, real authority, but I wasn’t pleased with what was happening in the Catholic Church. And that led to George Pell introducing what became known as the Melbourne Response,” he said.
“So I hear, and I see and I accept the verdict. But that wasn’t the experience I had with George Pell at that time. That’s what I’m saying. No I can’t support him, I accept the findings, but I find it hard to reconcile.”
“Yeah, Jeff, you’re not the victims though,” Armytage said.
“I’m sorry, beg your pardon?” he said.
“Jeff you’re not a victim of this. George Pell now stands as a convicted paedophile. And there are people out there who are the victims of these crimes,” she said.
“Sorry, you asked me, and I accept the verdict. So don’t try and put words in my mouth,” Mr Kennett replied.
“I’m not trying to put words in your mouth,” Armytage said.
“You’re asking me do I support him, and I’m saying to you I can’t support him, because the court has ruled, right? And I accept the decision of the court,” Mr Kennett said.
“I’m just saying to you, what happened in 1996, when I was involved with him in trying to get a resolution to this issue within the Catholic Church. What happened then, and my knowledge, does not reconcile with what has appeared and been put to the court, put to a jury, tested and found wanting.”
“But you support John Howard supporting him?” Barr asked.
“I support the right of any individual. Don’t try and put people down for exercising their own right. For goodness’ sake,” Mr Kennett said.
“Well plenty of people are, and it’s their right to do that too, I guess. Australia is speaking this week,” Barr said.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s fine, and people are entitled to. I don’t agree with that view. I think people are entitled to give references to people they feel they know well,” Mr Kennett said.
The hosts then turned to Mr Latham for his opinion on Mr Howard’s character reference.
“Let’s be very clear about this. Paedophilia is an evil in our society, one of the very worst things that can happen,” Mr Latham said.
“It should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. No equivocation about it — ‘I had a meeting with him in ’96 and he didn’t do it then,’ — none of that Jeff. None of that. This should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
“And the thing about John Howard, it’s not a matter of standing up for a friend, it’s the way he expressed that. John Howard said he saw the conviction for paedophilia and it didn’t change his opinion of George Pell one iota. Now that’s just a lack of morality.
“A statement should start with total sympathy for the victims, and condemn paedophilia no matter how powerful the person was, and no matter how big the person was. Get stuck into them.”
Armytage threw back to Mr Kennett for his reaction.
“Yes, so? That wasn’t the question you asked me. I agree with that. I think paedophilia is appalling, and it should be wiped out,” he said.
“That’s one of the criticisms of John Howard’s statement Jeff Kennett, that he didn’t mention the victims, and that the reference wasn’t just a reference supporting George Pell, it was a glowing one,” Barr said.
“Righto, can I just say, we’re all perfect. We’re all perfect. John Howard’s entitled to express himself,” Mr Kennett said.
“No, that’s not an argument, that’s silly,” Armytage interjected
“John Howard is entitled to express himself as you are, and as you’re doing. I don’t argue with that. You asked me about John Howard’s statement. He’s entitled to say what he wants to say,” Mr Kennett said.
An exasperated Armytage jumped back in.
“If George Pell had come to you as the former Victorian premier and said, ‘I would like a reference from you because I am about to be convicted of being a paedophile,’ what would you have done? Would you have written a reference saying he was a good man back in 1996? I think that was the year the crimes were committed,” she said.
“He never came to me, nor did his lawyers, nor was I asked. So I’m not going to talk about something so ridiculously hypothetical,” Mr Kennett said.
“That’s just silly. With due respect ladies, that is silly.”
Mr Abbott has also come under fire for his reaction to the Pell verdict.
Speaking to 2GB radio’s Ben Fordham earlier this week, the former prime minister revealed he had spoken to Pell on the phone after the guilty verdict became public knowledge, and said the crimes “don’t sound consistent with the man I’ve known”.
Another 2GB host, Ray Hadley, ripped into Mr Abbott and Mr Howard during his program the next morning.
“There’s no mention of any victims in Mr Howard’s reference,” Hadley said.
“This gushing reference, in my opinion, was over the top … I am really struggling to get a grip on it.”
He said Mr Abbott had shown “a complete lack of understanding of victims of paedophiles”.
“His electorate would be looking at all this at the moment and scratching their heads.”
Mr Howard is one of 10 people who provided a character reference at Pell’s pre-sentencing hearing on Wednesday.
Pell will be back in court for sentencing on March 13.