Cardinal Pell's Trial: “The Sting Operation That Came Apart”

September 05, 2021

Professor of Law and Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne, Fr. Frank Brennan reflects on the trial of Cardinal George Pell, of which he attended key parts.

In an exclusive interview with Catholic Weekly - the religious weekly of the Archdiocese of Sydney - on August 27, 2021, Fr. Brennan openly questioned the work of the police and magistrates in the case that led to the 13-month imprisonment of Cardinal George Pell before his release by a unanimous decision of the High Court of Australia in April 2020.

“By the time it came to [Cardinal Pell’s] trial there’s no doubt that a lot of people in Australia, particularly in some of the media, particularly in the Victoria Police, were looking for both a scapegoat and a victim,” declares the Jesuit, who was able to consult all of the transcripts of the trial.

Worse: for the lawyer, the police and justice systems of Victoria committed “a serious error with regard to Cardinal George Pell,” to the point of “compromising their credibility,” and degenerating the trial into a “political vendetta against the high prelate.”

Fr. Brennan was never a strong supporter of the Cardinal and he readily acknowledges a number of “public differences” with him.

But the Jesuit priest became convinced of his innocence when he saw prosecutor Mark Gibson, “an honorable man and a good lawyer” struggling in vain to find the six minutes when the offense against two choristers, after a solemn high mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, could have taken place. And again, that was just one of the many serious problems with the case against the Cardinal.

So, why so much relentlessness against an innocent person? According to Fr. Brennan, it is necessary go back to 1996, the year of the appointment of Msgr. Pell as Archbishop of Melbourne.

The Australian prelate then established – in consultation with the Victorian Police and the Victorian legal authorities, who asked him to fight more effectively against abuses committed by clerics - a whole set of measures known as the Melbourne Response.

This device was criticized from the outset in the press and also in the corridors of the courthouses because “there was still a perception that he had failed to make necessary changes in the interests of children in the Church.”

The trial of the high prelate would then become “a sting operation,” the aim of which was primarily to destroy his reputation, but which ultimately turned against the police and the judicial system.

The law professor announced that a full eight-page analysis of the lawsuit is to be published in the September 5 issue of Catholic Weekly.

Since the epilogue of this sad saga, the Fr. Brennan acknowledges having established a certain friendship with the cardinal: “I would say that he is an honorable man, and having got to know him more as I did, I was left in even less doubt, if that was possible, that he could have possibly done what was alleged.”