For nearly three months a small group of journalists watched as the most powerful Catholic official to be charged with child sexual abuse faced justice in a Melbourne courtroom.
Until now we have been unable to publish a word of what we heard and saw.
Cardinal George Pell, a confidant to the pope and the financial manager of the Vatican, had been on trial for child sexual abuse – not once, but twice.
But a suppression order meant that the thousands of words recorded by the media – including the Guardian – through first a mistrial and then a retrial had to remain carefully protected in notepads and on personal computers. Nothing could be published.
The court had ruled that the interests of justice were paramount. Pell was due to face yet another trial involving more allegations – this time accused of molesting boys in a swimming pool. And, without a suppression order, news of the preceding trials would have received saturation coverage – potentially biasing a future jury.
So when the extraordinary guilty verdict came in December 2018, it too, for a time, was suppressed.
But with that “swimmers trial” now dropped owing to a lack of admissible evidence we can now reveal how justice unfolded, the day-to-day detail of the case and how the media’s behaviour and the allegations of a “cover-up” affected those at the centre of it all.
‘The burden is much greater’.
Pell’s first trial began in August 2018. Known as the “cathedral trial” in legal and journalistic circles, it lasted for five weeks.
After a week of deliberations the jurors could not reach an unanimous verdict, or even a majority verdict of 11 to one. Their distress was clear. Five of them were in tears.
But he also left them with a warning: “Whatever took place in that jury room must stay there.”
And it did.
A new jury needed to be selected for the retrial, which began in November. As with the first trial, journalists watched via videolink from a courtroom on the third floor as 250 would-be jurors crowded into a room on the lower level of the county court.
The unusually large group was called because there were fears that so many people would have biases towards or against the Catholic church that finding non-prejudiced jurors would be difficult.
As they took their seats, Kidd told them they faced selection for the “director of public prosecutions versus Pell” trial.
There was an audible shift in the room as he clarified: “That is, Cardinal George Pell.”
While only 12 jurors can decide a verdict, 14 were chosen in case any dropped out owing to illness or for other reasons, with two to be balloted off come the deliberations.
Pell had the right to challenge up to three jurors as their numbers were pulled out of a ballot box and their occupations read out. He challenged none. Nine men and five women were sworn in, among them a church pastor, a mathematician, a chef and a schoolteacher.
Journalists braced themselves for five more weeks of the same witnesses, questioning and arguments they had heard before. Notes meticulously gathered during the first trial were now almost useless. They attended knowing there was a very real possibility the jury could be hung once again.
Seeing Pell in court each day quickly became mundane.
Each morning the cardinal would be dropped off by a black car. He always wore the same thing: black trousers, a black shirt and, sometimes, a beige jacket. Police would usher him inside and he would be expedited through security, receiving a pat-down rather than a scan because of his pacemaker.
A Catholic church official, Katrina Lee, was usually by his side as he made his way up to level four of the building. There they would lock themselves away in a tiny meeting room outside courtroom 4.3 until proceedings began.
Pell made his way between the dock and this cramped meeting room every day, moving slowly with the assistance of a cane because of an injured knee. The meeting room held a standard white office table, a few chairs and a bin. A single internal window gave a view to the floors below.
In the dock he was accompanied by a police officer who sat to his left, and in court breaks he would be joined in the meeting room by Lee and members of the defence team.
They would bring him lunch: deliveries from Uber Eats, pickle sandwiches, sausage rolls and milkshakes. They would sometimes laugh and joke. For a time, journalists would gather in the equally crowded meeting room adjoining Pell’s – until security realised the walls were thin and conversation about topics such as lunch orders could be overheard.
By the second trial there were only about eight reporters left who attended every day, with stretched newsrooms unable to dedicate resources to the entirety of another five-week trial.
People who were connected enough to know the trial was taking place filed in and out of the courtroom throughout: the Jesuit priest Frank Brennan, the former deputy prime minister and ambassador to the Vatican Tim Fischer, and barristers and judges from surrounding courts. They stopped by, still in their robes and wigs, to observe one of the most notable cases in memory unfold.
The prominent child abuse campaigner Chrissie Foster, who fought the Catholic church for justice for two of her daughters who were raped by a priest, also attended regularly.
Other church supporters and priests came in and out, too, sometimes approaching the dock to shake Pell’s hand and wish him well. A priest was kicked out by security for being disruptive, making noises in agreement with Pell’s defence team, and frequently forgetting to turn off his phone.
Some other abuse survivors and their advocates would plant themselves among the journalists, seeing them as allies, with at least one whispering their thoughts while witnesses were cross-examined. It put journalists in an awkward position – we were there not to take sides but to record an important trial unfolding.
And it was this unlikely collective of people who paced the corridor and filled the meeting rooms outside the courtroom after the second jury retired to deliberate. Pell and his team shut themselves away in the tiny room.
Staying nearby was essential because, once a verdict was reached, events would move fast, and reporters risked not being alerted in time. So they waited and watched for movement, for the lawyers to emerge and re-enter the court. After three and a half days, word came that the jurors were done. A couple of dozen people filed into the courtroom. After months, a clear outcome appeared to have been reached.
On the surface, Pell’s legal team looked relaxed as they took their seats at the bar table. Minutes later, it was hard for the defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, to conceal his shock as his client was found guilty of one count of sexually penetrating a 13-year-old boy and four counts of sexually assaulting two 13-year-old boys.
Richter’s confident demeanour evaporated. His voice barely rose above a whisper as he discussed bail requirements and a sentencing date with the judge.
Many in the room joined in the counsel’s disbelief. Doubts of a conviction were partly driven by the outcome of the first trial. And only the jurors and legal teams had seen the victim’s evidence, which was critical to the prosecution’s case.
The public, including media, were barred from witnessing his testimony, as is common in sexual abuse trials, to spare survivors from additional trauma and to protect their identities.
This meant that all the journalists had heard was evidence from a number of choirboys and from former church staff who had not witnessed the offences occur, and who often struggled to recall details about the church, Sunday solemn mass, and the movements of Pell and the choirboys more than two decades after the fact. There was also an interview between Pell and two detectives in Rome which was remarkable for the Cardinal’s confidence and dismissiveness of any wrongdoing.
So, when the verdict came, the room was still. No one made a sound. The news – which would usually erupt on to websites and across airwaves throughout the world within seconds – needed to stay within newsrooms for the time being.
Too sensational to contain
But despite a strict suppression order – in place because of the “swimmers trial” Pell was facing, and the need to ensure that future jurors would not be biased – the verdict proved too sensational to contain.
While the journalists who were the courtroom day in, day out did not themselves write anything, the court alerted the wider media to the suppressed decision – as is common after a trial because of the public interest.
Reporters from international news organisations published articles despite the suppression order being in place; these necessarily lacked detail because their authors were unlikely to have been in court.
Soon tweets and opinion pieces were also being published by media outlets who attempted to be cryptic, and which lamented the overuse of suppression orders in Australian courts. Some of those news organisations have since been issued with contempt-of-court notices and journalists face possible jail time.
Some readers saw the international reports and the tweets, and the local vague coverage, and threatened to stop supporting Australian news organisations which had not covered the story, accusing them of failing to work in the public interest.
In a hearing held on 13 December, two days after the verdict, a lawyer representing several Australian media companies argued before Kidd that the suppression should be lifted now that the verdict was somewhat out. Kidd, usually so measured and cerebral, could not contain his fury.
“The way I see it at the moment is that some of this publicity was designed to put improper pressure upon me,” Kidd said.
“And, indeed, it is positively misleading … My [suppression] order was never appealed. Indeed, quite dishonestly these articles refrain from informing their readers that there was no opposition [by media] to the suppression order being made in Victoria.
“It is just breathtaking.”
He kept the suppression in place, saying the story had not spread so widely or with enough detail for it to be completely ineffective.
It was a decision which in the end proved correct – the story did not disseminate much further after the initial publications outside of Australia. And it was a decision that reflected Kidd’s handling of the trial as a whole. Considered, diligent and fair.
Indeed, during those many weeks in court, if either party crossed a line in their examination of witnesses they copped a swift rebuke. Both the prosecution and the defence seemed to respect Kidd greatly.
Kidd repeatedly told the jury he would give no hints as to the verdict they should return, and that they were not to make Pell a scapegoat for the church’s failings. Pell was at a significant disadvantage, he told them, owing to the decades that had passed and the fact he could not gather evidence from witnesses when their memories were more sound.
“You alone are the judges in this case,” he told the jurors. “It is not my responsibility to decide this case. That is your role. The verdict you return has nothing to do with me. You are not bound by any comments I make about the facts. Do not look to me for hints. I won’t give you any.”
He urged jurors to go home each night and clear their heads, he wished them restful weekends, and he acknowledged the gravity of the task they had randomly been assigned.
When a juror fell asleep while he was speaking, he said he would “try not to to take it personally” – then sent jurors away for the evening to ensure they only heard evidence while totally focused.
In the aftermath of the verdict, Richter, one of the most well-known and expensive defence barristers in Melbourne, will be asking himself what went wrong. It was, by all accounts, his case to lose.
The answer may be in part that his courtroom style – at times confrontational and theatrical – is more palatable to jurors hearing cases involving criminal underworld figures than those considering harrowing crimes of child sexual abuse. His closing address was unwieldy. It lasted two days and referenced US television shows, Darth Vader and the Queen. There was even a PowerPoint presentation.
Richter closed by warning the jurors that if they convicted Pell: “You can’t can’t come back and say, ‘Oops, I’m sorry, I made a mistake.’” It may have appeared condescending.
By contrast the crown prosecutor Mark Gibson’s closing address took about one day, and was delivered with no theatrics. At times, it was almost dry. He took the jurors to direct quotes given by witnesses throughout the trial. He walked them step-by-step through what the victim said had happened. He told jurors they should find the victim was believable, an honest historian, describing as best he could horrific events that happened to him as a 13-year-old through the eyes of a man now in his 30s.
The combination of a compelling witness and Gibson’s measured approach made the offences seem not “improbable” and “impossible” as Richter claimed, but real and painful.
There will be an appeal, Pell and his lawyers have confirmed. And, in the meantime, media company executives and journalists may be brought to the court to explain why they breached the suppression order. The pope will eventually need to respond to the verdict.
The months of silence and pressure on those in the trial has lifted. But the story is far from over.