Tue, 27 Jul 2021

How the Interview Changed the Story

(Op-ed) Chris Friel
04 Dec 2019, 19:28 GMT+10

By "the interview" I mean the meeting in 2016 between Cardinal Pell and the Victorian Police. By "the story" I mean the complainant's narrative, for example, of what happened in the sacristy. A close analysis suggests that in several respects the story altered as a result of what was learned in Rome.

A salient issue is the timing of the walk-through. In 2016 the police met with the complainant at St Patrick's to walk through the Cathedral, but whether this was before or after the interview on 19 October we are not told. In this paper I am assuming that the walk-through took place before the interview, but towards the end I shall briefly sketch out the ramifications if I am wrong. In any case, we definitely can detect a narrative shift and this is what I want to examine.

The complainant is reported to have given his two police statements in 2015, but obviously, being in situ would likely refresh memories and perhaps specify the allegations concretely. I take it that having witnessed the walk-through the police were now clearer about some details, but also had acquired a series of pertinent questions that inform their background thinking to the Rome interview. I wish to consider five aspects in particular. Regarding the first incident (which, it transpires, happened after Sunday Mass) it is alleged that two boys, who were singing in the choir, were assaulted a little later in one of the back rooms of the cathedral. A first point is to identify that room and a second is to establish how the boys got there from the choir. A third point regards the wine that the boys found in that room and a fourth the precise place in it where they were assaulted. Regarding the second incident, the relevant question regards the exact place along the corridor where the complainant was grabbed.

Clearly, I have not seen the video shown to the jury and viewed by the appellate judges. Nor have I read the transcript. Even so, I can guess straightaway what the video does not show. In the final account of what happened in 1996, facts about which we are assured could be established beyond reasonable doubt, the boys left the choir from their place behind the altar, processed down the main aisle, turned left outside the cathedral, turned left again towards the Knox Centre, but then "nicked off" somewhere so as to re-enter the Cathedral. The pair then headed to the sacristies area, made their way into the Priests Sacristy, and, after their encounter, retraced their steps until they reached the rear metal gate to get to the choir robing room, indeed, the rehearsal room next door.

But although this is what the walk-through ought to have shown (not least to give the timescales involved) the ruling tells us that the complainant said at the walk-through, "that the choir would come up and down the internal sacristy corridor every Sunday, before and after Mass." It was only later that he "turned his mind" to the external procession. The word "procession" (which refers to a liturgical gesture) is never actually used in the interview and an attentive viewing reveals that the police were (a) especially interested in the whereabouts of the boys during the Mass in relation to the back rooms, and (b) unaware that Pell would process down the aisle. They had a direct journey in mind. Presumably, then, the walk-through went from the sanctuary area straight to the sacristies, and beyond to the choir rooms (as we know because the complainant misidentified a door there). It seems unlikely that they ever stepped outside.

The scene of the crime was always the Priests' Sacristy, the place where the wine was kept. We have a specific detail that identifies it: the complainant recalls that the double-doors were half-open and half-bolted. In fact, the police were unaware that this was not actually Pell's room, but Detective Chris Reed explicitly refers to what was immediately on the left as you come in. That detail also is a unique descriptor because the doors to the Archbishop's sacristy are positioned so that nothing is immediately to the left except the wall, a fact that occasions the beginning of a realisation on Pell's part that they are speaking at cross-purposes the matter being settled when Pell grasps that the police (who have clearly been in the room as they have seen the oak tree outside) refer to the wine. Wine was not kept in his room, but in what Pell called a "formidable safe" in the Priests' Sacristy.

If the actual room was correctly identified, problems arose once inside. The two issues regard the location of the wine and the place where the assaults happened. In the interview Reed explicitly refers to a kitchenette area (not his exact words) that he says is "immediately to the left." This detail is repeated in court and the police provide photographs.

Here, the double doors are half-open and half-bolted, with the corridor visible. On the right as we look (immediately on the left as one enters the room) the kitchenette. It is from here that the complainant says that some wine was found, and interestingly, a dark bottle is on display.

Now, this photo was perhaps taken at the time of the walk-through. At any rate, we have some details of Richter's cross-examination courtesy of Keith Windschuttle: In his final address to the jury at the end of the trial, Richter showed how fragile that faith [in the complainant's knowledge of the sacristy] had been all along. He went through a video made in 2016 of a walk-through of the backrooms of the cathedral by the sole witness for the prosecution. Richter pointed out a discomforting inconsistency between what the choirboy said at the walk-through and the evidence he had given in court. Richter said:

The next matter we want to address is that [the complainant] might have been in the room [the sacristy] in other circumstances as a chorister. We just want to draw your attention to a couple of items of evidence. It is not a very significant matter, you might think, but there are first the wooden panel storage kitchenette and you have seen that he is looking at an open kitchenette area with the twin basins and in the corner there's a bottle of wine that looks dark and opaque. He is looking at that and he said, "That's unchanged."

It doesn't matter what my learned friend says about something like, "It was woodgrain vinyl," that doesn't matter. What matters is he's looking at that kitchenette area and he says, "That's unchanged." You have got the video of the walk-through where he does that, and that's precisely what he's pointing at, and that's precisely what has been completely changed, and completely changed in later years.

The court also heard evidence that showed that the wine used was in clear bottles, and so, suspiciously, we wonder how that particular bottle got into the photo. It appears in the place where at first the complainant had said that he had found wine. Indeed, it seems to be the colour the complainant had insisted upon, though he got the colour wrong.

To us it as tendentious as OJ's glove, and although we have never once heard his voice, our auditory imagination reverberates with the sound of Robert Richter's rhetoric: If the glass does not fit the jury must acquit!

Still, in the interview the police would learn that the wine was kept in a vault (Pell had called it a "safe"). Later they would get evidence from Charles Portelli who Pell had said could vouch for him. He testified in the trial about the location of the wine and the changes to the decor following a refurbishment in 2003/4. After this, (and we would argue, because of this), the narrative changed. It seems as though the boys were swigging wine in the alcove area.

This point is stressed by the majority and the testimony given was that the boys "made their way to an alcove in the corner ... which was a little bit concealed." Nothing like this was said at all to Pell, and it is worth remarking that in this paragraph the majority explain in parenthesis (omitted in the previous sentence) that the alcove is "described as a wood-panelled area resembling a storage kitchenette with cupboards." We would suggest that this is a desperate attempt to harmonise discordant narratives. In fact, the dissent is explicit that the complainant had described what was immediately to the left as a kitchenette, taking time to spell out as the majority do not that the complainant had described it as unchanged. What is clear (in the dissent too) that the wine is found in the alcove.

Moreover, the complainant reported that the boys had only taken a couple of swigs before Pell entered, and that the abuse started immediately. Consistent with the discovery of the wine, the assault takes place in the alcove, with the majority relating how the complainant being forced to crouch in the corner.

But none of this is remotely consistent with what the police told Pell in Rome. In the first place, Pell planted himself in the doorway he blocked the door. We have often drawn attention to the dodge whereby Louise Milligan's 'Cardinal' (2019 edition) replaced the "locked" in the 2017 edition by the assonance "blocked," but at any rate, we must insist that the doors referred to can only be the double doors of the sacristy itself. In fact, the alcove area does have a space that can be referred to a doorway, and in 1996 would have had concertina doors. However, at one point in the interview we hear of Pell having his back to the door while pulling aside his robes to expose himself, and to us it seems too torturous to read that as referring to half-shut concertina doors.

Second, and as indicated, the offences began as soon as Pell entered, and this involved an immediate act of indecent exposure. This only makes sense if the boys were visible, and certainly not in the slightly concealed alcove for actually, the kitchenette blocks the line of sight to the alcove. Even if we make that obstruction completely transparent Pell would surely not have kept his back to the door to expose himself to two boys on his far left. Third, we learn in the interview that Pell was only a step or so away from the moment when he started exposing himself (back to the door) to the time when he made physical contact with the boys. Here let us add that the early account whereby Pell exposed himself back-to-the-door evolves subtly so that in the later accounts Pell is approaching the boys when manoeuvring his robes so that then he could expose himself. Fourth, and explicitly, we hear Reed speaking at one point of the boys in the "middle" of the room.

Finally, we would argue from silence. We have in fact found a police photo that shows the alcove:

Here we see the alcove (with, perhaps, a white door leading to the vault, a "walk-in" room). From this perspective it is obvious that the two narratives of Pell at the double doors and boys in the alcove cannot be harmonised. But our point is that we have never found any close-ups of the alcove, or the corner where the complainant had to crouch and so on. It is simply off the radar screen. The focus is on the kitchenette (by which we mean the place where a mysterious bottle can be observed). But if the police took no photos of the alcove then this can only be because this never featured in the walk-through (or previous police statements). This has to be the reason why the police showed no interest in the alcove whatsoever when they met with the Cardinal in Rome.

How then did the narrative develop? The obvious answer is that, having more of a clue as to where the wine was kept from what Pell said, in the first place, but later on, from Portelli the initial story was thought to be lacking-somewhat in factual accuracy, and hence in credibility. It's for this reason that the assault had to happen in the corner.

We have demonstrated, however, that such innovations could not be made in such a way as to cover up every trace of the previous narrative, not even by the majority's flexible use of the word "kitchenette" (and their deafness to the plain meaning of "immediately to the left"). In other words, we have spelt out in this paper that a close examination of the Rome interview reveals such a narrative shift. Needless to say, once it has become apparent that someone is embelleshing in order to enhance credibility then that discovery patently undermines credibility. We take it that this is as obvious to the reader as it would be to the majority.

Moreover, we would suggest that this narrative shift occasioned by the interview is not an isolated incident. For it transpires that at the walk-through the complainant identified the place where the second incident happened. It was on the "Utility Corridor," the one joining the sanctuary to the double doors straight ahead. However, later on the story was that it happened on the "Sacristies Corridor," the one at right angles (so that the Priests' and Archbishop's Sacristies are now on the right). That is, it happened between the two sacristies. What is the significance here? Clearly, one advantage of the development is that, supposing Pell was using his own sacristy as of course he would usually do, then at least Pell might be argued to have some reason to be in that spot. If we waive the many objections to the robed and alone Archbishop then this does make some sense. Unfortunately, however, it also transpired that Pell was not using his own sacristy at the time as that was taken up as a place where some large paintings were being restored. So by an ironical quirk a narrative shift that was meant to improve matters turns out to be an embarrassment whilst by another ironical quirk the fact that Pell had to disrobe in the other sacristy was taken as a boost to credibility for the first incident! That argument can be refuted elsewhere, but here we repeat our point that the shiftiness designed to make the story more credible only undermines itself when the artifice becomes apparent and this is what we think has happened here.

Let us now mention what we take to be the really significant message that the police would have taken home from the Hilton Hotel in Rome where the interview with the Cardinal took place. Thinking on his feet, Pell gradually amasses a wealth of detail that demonstrates that the sacristy would have been a "hive of activity" (his own words which would be repeated by others). It presents the most insurmountable difficulty, for how could the assault happen if no such opportunity for it existed? Someone would have seen it. Here it is extremely difficult, and we would maintain, impossible, for any narrative shift to solve this problem. At any rate, we have argued that the desperation of the hiatus theory, early or late, fails utterly.

However, we think that the very best attempt was made. For a constraint arose, namely, that in fact the boys would process, at least to the main aisle, and on a fine day, externally. So we find the later account tells of an external procession. However, the activity in the sacristy is just about to begin, and so ... the race is on! The boys will nick off and get to the sacristy first. They cannot go by the route that the others will take, and so we find a concoction about re-entering by the South Transept. I am unsure as to whether it is the practice to open up that door on a Sunday, but if it was opened we must surely assume that it was only to let people in and out of the basilica. But then, we have to assume that parishioners would have been streaming out as two rogue choristers barged their way past a brazenness that presumably still resides in the "darkest corners and recesses" of the complainant's mind (on the assumption that it actually happened). Then somehow the journey to the sacristy is undertaken that (we assume) bears the closest approximation to the 2016 walk- through.

Our opinion, then, is that after interviewing Pell in Rome the earlier narrative became challenged in various ways so that the later narrative emerged as a response to such challenges. Hence the "memory" of an external procession, nicking off, a journey to the alcove, and an assault in the corner. We also find an unfortunate tweak in the location of the second incident. This is how the interview changed the story.

Anyone accepting our account, however, will surely appreciate that irreparable damage is done to the complainant's credibility. As Richter might say, "You just made that up, didn't you?" Moreover, if information from the police has contaminated the narrative, then questions of credibility arise there too. Here we may briefly consider the implications of an alternative order, that the walk-through took place after 19 October and not before the interview. Supposing this to be the case then, in certain respects, it seems as though the integrity of what was said then appears boosted. I mean, for example, even though it was becoming apparent that Pell would process to the west door, the complainant still claimed to (process) internally before and after Mass. But then, in that case, some source unconnected with those conducting the walk-through must be responsible for the narrative shifts that, nonetheless, grew up later still, presumably after having access to the interview.

Worse, our analysis does not put the majority in a good light. For it has indicated that they have attempted to paper over the cracks that have appeared along the fault-lines of the diverging narratives. It seems to us that they are fully aware of how the 2016 version did not quite locate the assault in the corner, and while this may seem to be a matter of a few feet mis-remembered across the decades, we think it indicates an artifice that quite cuts across the official view. On the face of it, the artifice infects the ruling.

Thus the majority obscure the difference between the kitchenette immediately to the left and the alcove in the corner and they repeat without any reflection at all the Crown's claim that the complainant had identified the location of the place where the wine was stored in 1996 and not where it is now. This piece of evidence is supposed to enhance credibility, but the majority never actually explain what this means and they quite avoid the embarrassing fact that the complainant changed his tune after Pell had spoken to the police. Moreover, they pass over further embarrassments that only the dissent are open about such as the complainant's claim that the kitchenette looked exactly the same as it did back then despite undergoing renovation. Here it seems to us that the majority are far from genuine truth-seeking and even go beyond what might be called "making a case." In this respect they appear to have joined some sections of the police.

Perhaps the most generous reading of the majority is that, having set out on a policy of believe-the- complainant, they then find themselves committed to expense after expense after expense in order to keep the complainant in credit, like someone writing out a blank cheque to a person adding zero after zero after zero. Here we are reminded of the case of Carl Beech in the UK which has elicited the phrase "institutional stupidity" as applied to the Metropolitan Police. This is how the Australian judges have conducted themselves. Yet how deep down are buried those skeletons of the narrative shifts! How many months must the investigator dig before those skeletons are brought before the light of day! We have to say that this institutional stupidity is ingenious indeed.

Let us conclude. Back in March we proposed a methodology: examine the narrative shifts. By considering the interview and the testimony in court we have focused here on the location of the wine and the exact place where the assaults happened. This had led us to offer a reading of the majority that shows how they have disguised those narrative shifts.


(The writer Doctor Chris Friel taught maths for many years before undertaking, first, a masters in Philosophy, and second, doctoral research on value and credibility in the thought of Bernard Lonergan. In 2018 he investigated at length the "purposely timed hysteria" of the pro-Israel hawks in the UK amidst the antisemitism crisis, and in 2019 has devoted an equally lengthy exploration of the Pell case and its context).

Also by Chris Friel:

A Critique of Ferguson and Maxwell

Cardinal George Pell learned of charges against him in Rome interview

(Related story: High Court of Appeal in Australia to review conviction of Cardinal).

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