Wed, 23 Sep 2020

How did concelebrating priests go missing at a Sunday Mass?

(Op-ed) Dr. Chris Friel
20 Feb 2020, 08:27 GMT+10

Dr Chris Friel examines another of the many concerning aspects of the child sexual abuse case against Cardinal George Pell.

This note looks at the concelebrating priests at the "first incident" in six key texts of Pell's trial.

The first incident is the one alleged to have occurred in December 1996 (either Sunday 15th or Sunday 22nd) at St Patrick's Cathedral Melbourne. Archbishop George Pell was celebrating Mass for the first time (on a Sunday) in the newly renovated premises. It's also reported that priests celebrated Mass with him as one might expect on such an august occasion. These priests do not appear to have been named in the context of Pell's trial though they would surely be significant material witnesses.

The Crown had to settle on 23 February 1997 for the second incident despite the fact that the complainant was adamant that it happened just a month after the first and in the same year (which would place the first incident no later than November, that is, in the Spring, something that the complainant impossibly alleged as Pell did not say Mass at that time). No evidence was given for this date, but at least Pell was presiding at Mass with Fr Egan celebrating. Egan was not called to give evidence and it is at least logically possible that Egan was one of those December concelebrants. As indicated, no names have ever been supplied and no good reason was given by the police for their omissions.

The six key "texts" in chronological order are: Pell's 2016 interview with the Victorian Police in Rome;i Bret Walker's submission to the media published in advance of the June hearing;ii the majority ruling in August co-authored by Victorian Court of Appeal Justices Chris Maxwell and Anne Ferguson;iii the dissent in August from Justice Mark Weinberg;iv Walker's submission to the High Court towards the beginning of January; v and Mark Gibson's response for the Crown towards the end of January Reference will be to the paragraph of the relevant document or in the case of Pell's interview the minute and second.

1. Pell in 2016. When interviewed by Detectives Reed and Sheridan in Rome, Pell was clearly hearing about the locale for the allegations for the first time and he is quite incredulous that they were situated after Mass which he described as a "big operation."vii Clearly thinking on his feet, he assembles people, "all sorts of people,"viii and at one point gives the appearance of racking his visual memory (as the video shows him moving his arms around as if to point to what he could image). It is from the Cardinal that the police learn that there was a procession, that when it was fine it would be external, and also how it was formed so that "I and any priests celebrating"ix would line up outside, and that as he would wait at the steps, "they would go back,"x so that the sacristy was a "hive of activity"xi and also that the sacristan would wait until the priests were gone.xii

2. Walker in June. "Concelebrating Priests" (and cognates) occurs three times:

- concelebrant priests returned in procession with the altar servers and disrobed in the priests' sacristy during this period, often remaining to wait for the Archbishop to return from the stepsxiii

- there were adult altar servers at the front and back of the choristers and concelebrant priests behind the choirxiv

Finally, in the unlikely compound event alleged by the Crown, Walker notes the implication that: There are no concelebrant priests or they do not disrobexv

3. Ferguson and Maxwell in August. Concelebrants are mentioned just once, as part of a transcript in which the majority outline the case for Pell by citing his counsel.xvi

4. Weinberg in August. The dissent has 14 mentions. In outlining the prosecution case we learn that concelebrating priests would be at the rear of the procession;xvii that it was Potter's responsibility to lay out their robes;xviii and that he was adamant that he would lock the sacristy, "because the concelebrant priests had left their coats and valuables in the room."xix

In "powerfully exculpatory"xx evidence (because he had retired that Christmas) Finnigan "could also recall that there were other priests concelebrating on those dates"xxi and he knew that they got changed in the Priests' Sacristy. Portelli could recall that priests were present at the time Pell disrobedxxii and Potter could recall that they would "talk among themselves while awaiting the Archbishop."xxiii Indeed, even the complainant could recall that Pell was always assisted by other priests.xxiv Rodney Dearing recalls seeing them still there in the bustling sacristy area when as an altar server he would end the procession at the sacristy.xxv Richter's compounding probabilities submission is recalled,xxvi and the presence of the concelebrating priests in the moving animation that was not permitted by the judge.xxvii

5. Walker in January. One mention: "In addition, there was unchallenged evidence that during the hive of activity concelebrant priests disrobed in the priests' sacristy."xxviii

6. Gibson in January. Again, just one mention recalls Finnigan's evidence that concelebrating priests would be disrobing the Crown's point being that the hive of activity would continue for some time.xxix

7. Conclusion. Although the concelebrating priests are only briefly referenced by Walker, it is clear that the significance of the evidence does not lose its force. Unchallenged evidence that priests were disrobing during the "hive of activity" is extremely pertinent to the "late hiatus theory." This refers to the speculation from the Crown that because Potter gave those in the sanctuary five minutes peace immediately after Mass, a hiatus existed in the sacristy which was true enough given that it was locked. At first, the Crown mooted an "early hiatus" theory, namely, that the assault happened, as the complainant alleged, immediately after Mass, that is to say, before the altar servers returned. However, this is quite untenable, for as well as the room being locked the rogue choristers would have been in the same procession as the servers who would have got to the sacristy first. In some forensic detail this conjecture has been thoroughly refuted by Keith Windschuttle, Andrew Bolt and others as the Crown surely know. So it is, that the Crown have now switched to the "late hiatus" conjecture whereby the assault happened after the altar servers returned they having been whisked away somewhere until they started their business of going back and fro. That speculation had to be retracted in the trial, and once again Windschuttle has shown how groundless the idea But the point about the concelebrating priests is that in unchallenged evidence the Court heard that they would be among the last of those processing to reach the sacristy and that they would stay there and chat indeed to Pell, as they surely would on this early occasion, it being Pell's first or second Sunday Mass. Even if those bustling were not in the room (not that they would have been gone for as long as five minutes) the concelebrating priests would have been in the sacristy to detect any crimes in the corner. This alone is fatal for the Crown.

This unchallenged evidence is carefully marshalled by Weinberg, but as we have seen, quite ignored by the majority (though it is clear that they have been appraised of the idea as it was mentioned by the defence counsel and formed part of Pell's denials as shown in the video). That fact alone is fatal for anyone preferring the majority to the dissent.

The police did not think of gathering evidence from the altar servers until requested by the CPS in June 2017, and certainly they never contacted Fr. Brendan Egan, the celebrant on the date assigned for the second incident no good reason was ever given for the omission. The majority speculate that Egan would not have provided any significant evidence, but this can hardly be said for any concelebrating priests who, on the evidence that exists, were in the same room at the time (now) alleged for the crime. The priests ought to have been called, or at any rate, some effort made to find out who they were.xxxi In the interview Pell had insisted that "the most rudimentary interview of staff and choir boys at the Cathedral would confirm that the allegations are fundamentally improbable and most certainly false."xxxii

Perhaps some clues are to be found in Connor's diary which was made available between the first and the second trials in September 2018. At any rate, it seems implausible that other priests did not concelebrate at Pell's early Masses. The failure to call these priests represents yet another disadvantage under which Pell's case suffered at being called twenty years after the event ("forensic delay"). Still, it is not impossible that their witness will yet be heard.

(File photo).

iii iv See previous endnote.
vii Police Interview, 35.35.
viii For details see:
ix Police Interview, 36.01.
x Police Interview, 36.24.
xi Police Interview, 36.58.
xii See Police Interview, 37.10 and 38.27.
xiii Walker, June, 9d (iii).
xiv Walker, June, 9e (ii).
xv Walker, June, Note 63, (7).
xvi Ferguson and Maxwell, 119.
xvii Weinberg, 364 and see also 762. Potter also could recall their position, 727.
xviii Weinberg, 495.
xix Weinberg, 517.
xx See Weinberg, note 199.
xxi Weinberg, 567 and see 734 for "a number of" priests as Finnigan could recall.
xxii Weinberg, 716. Presumably this was only when the Archbishop's Sacristy was not being used by Pell.
xxiii Weinberg, 727.
xxiv Weinberg, 736.
xxv Weinberg, 738.
xxvi Weinberg, 841.
xxvii 1128. Weinberg regards this as tendentious.
xxviii Walker, January, 24.
xxix Gibson, 62. Clearly, this has no bearing on when the activity started and as a matter of fact, unchallenged evidence was given that on these occasions the post-ludes were shorter than usual: at 9f.
xxx Windschuttle makes no mention of the concelebrants. See also, after this was first written: Windschuttle is absolutely correct to stress how gratuitous the idea of a late hiatus is, and how it contradicts the evidence given by Potter. Still, it is worth spelling out (which is why I wrote this piece) that even if you accept the late hiatus plus the conjecture of the angelic altar boys whisked away by Potter somewhere (maybe they hovering in the sanctuary area waiting to "move in"), even so, the priests would still be in the room all along. So the priests provide a refutation to the late hiatus theory, a decisive factor that, plainly, Mark Weinberg was appreciative of as he does such a thorough job in detailing the evidence on the concelebrants.
xxxi This had not occurred until it was pointed out to me.

xxxii at 10.

(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 commencing in 2019 has devoted an equally lengthy exploration of the Cardinal George Pell case and its context).

Also by Chris Friel:

Juggling of times in Pell case only raises more questions

Pell alibi looms as crucial factor in High Court appeal

Chorister supported Crown case against Pell

The Pell case - "Having reviewed the whole of the evidence..."

Cardinal Pell's Innocence or Guilt - now a matter for the High Court

Credibility of George Pell accuser under scrutiny

A Critique of Ferguson and Maxwell

How the Interview Changed the Story

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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