On Wednesday night, the whole of the ABC’s 7.30 programme was given over to an expose of historic allegations against Cardinal George Pell, effectively accusing him of inappropriate conduct involving boys while a parish priest in Ballarat forty years ago.
It has emerged that the police have had numerous opportunities to interview Pell as part of their own investigations into these allegations, and have not as yet done so. The Royal Commission into child sex abuse heard Pell’s evidence for days, but did not put these allegations to him.
It’s not appropriate here to comment on the allegations, related police investigations and resulting actions taken or not taken, or on the statements to camera of the boys – now middle-aged men – who told their stories. Pell chose to respond to the ABC by a careful but dignified written statement, denying wrongdoing and pointing out his episcopal leadership in confronting child sex abuse in the Australian Catholic church. He could do no more.
The 7.30 story was harrowing, riveting television, but it was wrong to put it to air.
We have a criminal justice system to investigate complaints of criminal behaviour, to charge and prosecute on the basis of all the available evidence, and to test the reliability of that evidence in court. That system does not include TV current affairs programmes.
The 7.30 programme was not a live criminal investigation, nor was it in the public interest to cut across any police investigation that is still underway.
We have too much trial by media, and figures like George Pell are easy targets for it. Not in his case simply because he is a conservative Catholic cleric who has risen to one of the highest offices in the Vatican, but simply because he’s an authority figure who’s all too easy to dislike – a big bear of a man, stiff, gawky and awkward in his manner and not a little pompous. His Royal Commission appearance was overly (but understandably, given the media circus around it) defensive and not his finest hour, but his gruff personality as well as his high position and being at the centre of the Ballarat diocese when the likes of Gerald Risdale were doing their worst, makes Pell a convenient mark for those wanting a head for the despicable things done to innocent and vulnerable children by Catholic priests like Risdale.
Pell’s by far is the biggest head available and, sadly, too many people want to believe the worst of him. Wednesday night’s story played to that ingrained prejudice.
We all abhor child sex abuse, and its evil, deranged perpetrators deserve a special place in Hell for their crimes against the most innocent. But we also must uphold the criminal justice system, and its basic principles of fairness and impartiality. While we should have the greatest sympathy for the abused, it’s not for the rest of us – even the national broadcaster – to play vigilante and undermine the vital work of the police and the courts.
Even having legalled themselves up to the eyeballs, and giving Pell a right of reply and, to their credit, reporting his responses fairly, the ABC still should not have aired that story on Wednesday night. Whatever the truth or otherwise of the televised allegations against Pell, mud will stick – and not just to him.