The resolution of the case of Cardinal George Pell, now in jail after his conviction for sexually abusing two 13-year-old choristers in 1996, must wait until an appeals court hands down its judgement.
But in the meantime, commentary is being published which raises further doubts about the controversial verdict.
In the latest Quadrant, its editor, historian Keith Windschuttle, describes, thanks to an alert subscriber to his magazine, an American case with intriguing parallels.
I don’t want to rehearse the details of the crimes of which Cardinal Pell is accused. They are too lurid and they are readily available elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it is alleged – and the jury obviously believed this story – that he found two choristers swigging altar wine in the sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral after Mass on a Sunday in December 1996. He was very angry and forced both of them to perform sex acts. Later on, he encountered one of them in a corridor in the Cathedral and abused him again. Two boys were involved, but one died of a drug overdose in 2014.
What Windschuttle stumbled upon is an article in the September 2011 issue of Rolling Stone magazine by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely. It described a very similar incident involving a priest in Philadelphia. Fr Charles Engelhardt allegedly caught a boy named “Billy Doe” swigging altar wine in his sacristy. He encouraged him to drink more and showed him pornographic magazines. A week later he performed sex acts on him. A few months later, another priest allegedly abused him.
As Windschuttle points out, that issue of Rolling Stone was readily available in Australia in 2011. In 2013, Victorian Police commenced a trawling operation to find people who were willing to testify that they had been abused by Cardinal Pell. In 2015, the complainant came forward with his story. Windschuttle asks:
So, what is the probability that the evidence given in Australia was not an authentic account of what happened in Melbourne but, rather, a copy of a story that had already been aired in print and online? Here are the similarities between the American and the Australian allegations:
# Both cases of sexual abuse occurred in the sacristy after Sunday Mass.
# In both cases, the victims had been drinking wine they found in the sacristy.
# Both boys assisted in the celebration of the Mass.
# The priest fondled both boys’ genitals.
# Both boys were made to kneel before the priest.
# Both boys were made to perform fellatio on the priest.
# Both the alleged victims were the only witnesses who testified for the prosecution in court; it was their word against that of the priests.
There are differences in the two stories, of course.
Nonetheless, the two accounts are so close to being identical that the likelihood of the Australian version being original is most implausible. There are far too many similarities in the stories for them to be explained by coincidence. The conclusion is unavoidable:
“The Kid” was repeating a story he had found in a magazine – or repeating a story someone else had found for him in the media – thereby deriving his account of what Pell did from evidence given in a trial in the United States four years earlier. In short, the testimony that convicted George Pell was a sham. This does not mean the accuser was deliberately making it up. He might have come to persuade himself the events actually happened, or some therapist might have helped him “recover” his memory. But no matter how sincere the accuser’s beliefs were, that does not make them true, especially when there is so much other evidence against them.
Conjecture? Yes, of course. It is hardly watertight evidence that the Pell incident was fabricated. But it would explain the somewhat formulaic nature of the actions as narrated by the complainant. At the very least, it is a thread that Louise Milligan, the ABC journalist whose book, Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, contains most of the allegations, should have investigated. It is interesting to note the rhetorical parallels as well. Both women characterise the victims as gentle, soulful persons. Erdely describes the boy “Billy” as “A sweet, gentle kid with boyish good looks”; Milligan describes Pell’s complainant as a gentle young man in his early 30s with “chocolate-drop eyes framed with curling lashes”. The similarities could have weakened the prosecution’s case if they had emerged in the trial.
As a postscript, it is interesting to note what happened to the story about “Billy”. It’s not necessarily encouraging for supporters of Cardinal Pell, but thought-provoking nonetheless.
In 2016 a dogged reporter for Newsweek revisited Billy Doe’s abuse story. It was his testimony that put four men behind bars, three for abusing him and one for an alleged cover-up. As in Melbourne, he was the sole witness. They all denied the charges.
The journalist discovered that “Billy” was a man named Daniel Gallagher who was a chronic liar and drug abuser. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia reportedly settled with him for US$5 million as compensation for the abuse he had allegedly suffered. Fr Engelhardt died in jail still protesting his innocence. He had been offered a plea bargain which would have let him off with community service, but he refused to plead guilty to a crime that he said he did not commit.
The District Attorney who initiated the prosecution of the Billy Doe case, Seth Williams, ended up in jail for five years after facing unrelated corruption charges. (He also prosecuted Kermit Gosnell, the notorious abortionist.)
Sabrina Rubin Erdely subsequently wrote another article for Rolling Stone describing the gang rape of a University of Virginia student by several fraternity members. In Australia, police went “trawling” for complaints against Cardinal Pell; in the US Erdely went trawling for a college rape victim. Erdley’s story was based on the testimony of a single anonymous victim – who turned out to be fake. The article was totally discredited and described as “the Worst Journalism of 2014” by Columbia Journalism Review. A federal jury awarded US$3 million in defamation damages to a university administrator — $2 million from Ms Erdely and $1 million from Rolling Stone.