Cardinal George Pell, the subject of accusations of child sexual abuse on Australian television has called for an investigation into whether any actions by parts of the Victoria Police and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation amount to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
A second statement from the Cardinal's office said the ABC had no licence to destroy the reputation of innocent people and that he, like all those who had allegations against them that had not been tested by the courts, was entitled to the presumption of innocence - not immediate condemnation.
The 75-year-old Prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy, a former Archbishop of Sydney and earlier of Melbourne, was responding to allegations of historical abuse made on the ABC's public affairs program, 7.30.
Cardinal Pell's statement said that while he in no way wished to cause any harm to those making allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against him, "he simple fact is that they are wrong". "I bear no ill will and have no desire to cause them harm but what they say about me is not true," he said. "I have done nothing wrong."
The statement said that nearly six months ago, media outlets carried leaked stories of allegations against the Cardinal that were said to have been under investigation by the Victoria Police's SANO Taskforce for more than 12 months. "Despite this there has been no requests made by the Taskforce to interview the Cardinal and the Victorian Police Commissioner confirmed last month that no request to interview the Cardinal had been proposed to him as necessary.
"It seems there has been leaking of information and allegations by elements of the Victorian Police to the ABC. This is consistent with previous patterns of improper and illegal disclosure of information from such sources to a variety of media outlets. Such information has in the past repeatedly been demonstrated to be inaccurate and unfounded. In a context where police themselves have suggested, accurately or otherwise, that the making of charges is under review by relevant authorities, these disclosures and consequent publicity by the ABC clearly are apt and calculated deliberately to influence and compromise relevant judicial and prosecutorial processes," the statement added.
"The Cardinal calls for an investigation to assess whether any actions of elements of the Victoria Police and the ABC program amount to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice." The statement said Cardinal Pell had cooperated in the past and would continue to do so through the proper and appropriate civil authorities. "He will not participate in trial by the ABC and other media outlets."
On Thursday (28 July), 7.30's Louise Milligan, who reported the allegations, said: "Neither Taskforce SANO nor anyone else at Victoria Police leaked this story to 7.30. All of the statements we gathered were given to us by the people who made them."
Cardinal Pell's successors as Archbishop of Sydney and of Melbourne came to his defence. Sydney's Archbishop Anthony Fisher said the allegations aired on the ABC "were extremely distressing for all parties, are as yet untested, and have been emphatically denied". "Allegations of criminal conduct should be met with a response that ensures all affected are treated with sensitivity and respect," Archbishop Fisher said.
"Respect for all involved – accuser, accused and community – requires such allegations be investigated in a way that affords all parties natural justice. No one is served when such due process is replaced with trial by media. It denies accusers the right to have their claims investigated in a transparent way by those whose role it is to examine such matters under the law. It denies the accused the right to respond to such claims with evidence that may be judged credible by police and prosecuting authorities. And it risks undermining any possibility of such matters being effectively investigated by police or adjudicated by the courts."
Archbishop Fisher, who succeeded Cardinal Pell in 2014, said the Cardinal had cooperated fully with official inquiries on every occasion he had been asked to do so, including giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse three times.
"I am confident he will continue this record of assisting the search for truth in these matters," Archbishop Fisher said. "The allegations aired on the ABC do not correspond with the George Pell I know. He has a record of leadership in the fight against child sexual abuse, and was the first Bishop in the world to implement a process under which such claims would be investigated by an independent commissioner, and where survivors could access financial and other assistance. While there has been criticism of this system, some of it fair and some of it not so fair, it nonetheless illustrates his commitment to transparency and justice in these matters.
"Cardinal Pell deserves the presumption of innocence. Those who believe they have been abused deserve to be heard with respect and compassion. And the community deserves the rule of law be respected. Trial by media benefits no one."
The President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Denis Hart, said he had known Cardinal Pell as a seminarian, priest, bishop and friend for more than 55 years. "The allegations made on the ABC 7.30 Report on (Wednesday) 27 July against Cardinal Pell do not reflect the man I know or the behaviour which I have observed over the years I have known him," said Archbishop Hart, who succeeded Cardinal Pell as Archbishop of Melbourne in 2001.
"All citizens are entitled to have allegations of criminal conduct investigated independently and according to law by the Police. Cardinal Pell is entitled to have allegations against him investigated according to the usual lawful processes without being compromised or sensationalised by the media. Cardinal Pell is also like all citizens entitled to the presumption of innocence. All in society are at risk if these basic tenets are breached."
Victoria's Chief Police Commissioner, Mr Graham Ashton, denied suggestions that police had leaked information to the media about Cardinal Pell. He told Melbourne radio station 3AW on Thursday that "anyone who saw that show last night on the ABC, which I did look at, it's clear the source of that information is from the victims".
Mr Ashton said he had received a letter from Cardinal Pell some time ago regarding a complaint of leaks and had sent that to Victoria's Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) "because I thought it warranted independent examination, and it's not something we should look at, and IBAC had a look at that and wrote back to me saying they had examined it and dismissed the complaint".
He said Cardinal Pell had not written to him again, but he would reply if he did so. Mr Ashton said police the investigation was continuing and was being assessed by Victoria's Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP), but there was no timeframe on when the OPP would reply. Asked if charges were a possibility, he replied: "Oh, anything's a possibility at this stage."
Asked if any decision to prosecute was a matter for the OPP or the police, he said: "It's a police decision." Mr Ashton repeated his earlier comments that if the investigation required Cardinal Pell to be interviewed, he would pursue that. "Again, we'll be led by that opinion and if that opinion is such that that's required, then we'll endeavour to do that. The investigation is ongoing."
A spokesman from the Ballarat Survivors Group, Mr Andrew Collins, told 7.30: "I think it's incumbent upon George Pell to immediately stand aside until the allegations are dealt with, and if not, then I think the Pope needs to take action and stand him down. The Church not only needs to do the right thing, but they need to be seen to be doing the right thing as well ... Not only that, I think he should immediately return to Australia to deal with these accusations."