Punishing Cardinal Pell: Warranted or Witch Hunt?


Punishing Cardinal Pell: Warranted or Witch Hunt?

By Terri Slater


The Investigations into child sexual abuse within the Australian Catholic Church have been a source of heated debate over the past few years, with a large focus on Cardinal George Pell and his involvement. Pell, who works directly for the Vatican in the area of high finance, has been under investigation for a range of allegations, ranging from being part of a ‘cover-up’ in regards to sexual abuse committed by other Priests within his diocese of Ballarat (such as currently incarcerated former priest Gerald Ridsdale), to child sexual abuse allegations against the Cardinal himself. Most recently, Pell has become the subject of severe scrutiny for his refusal to return to Ballarat to testify in court due to health issues, as well as reluctance to admit to any personal failings, leading a range of high-profile Australian journalists to offer their opinions on the issue.


The attention of the Australian media has been focused on the character, values and morals of Cardinal Pell, how he has responded to accusations as well as how he is regarded and perceived by the majority of Australians. While journalists Andrew Bolt and Miranda Divine of the Daily Telegraph consider the backlash against Pell a ‘witch hunt’ and unwarranted ‘punishment’, journalists Susie O’Brien of the Advertiser and Kristina Keneally of the Guardian take a much different approach, essentially insinuating that Pell is at fault, without directly stating that he is guilty- a notion that may be interpreted as walking a fine line in ethical journalism, as Pell has not been formerly charged for any crime.


Cardinal Pell has neither accepted nor acknowledged himself to be at fault in relation to these crimes at any stage within the interrogations. However, his continuous declarations of self-innocence and willingness to ‘shift blame’ to other members of the church have caused many to scrutinise him even more. So is it warranted for high profile Australian journalists to essentially drag his name through the mud even though there is a lack of conviction, or is it in fact a witch-hunt? Pell, ordained in December 1966, is one of the most distinguished and influential members of the Roman Catholic Church, who has served as Archbishop in both Melbourne and Sydney. To make such claims against him not only threatens his legacy as a faithful ‘servant of God’ but also threatens the very integrity of the Australian Catholic Church and demonstrates the institutions’ immorality in regards to dealing with child sexual abuse and paedophiles within the Church.



Andrew Bolt’s article, ‘Cardinal George Pell is the victim of a vicious witch hunt’ seeks to condemn anyone who ‘smears’ the Cardinal, claiming that the accusations against the him come from a ‘joy of hatred’ with ‘no attention to the facts’. Bolt immediately makes his primary claim clear- Pell is an innocent man who has been wrongly accused by the Australian people, who have ignored fact and instead sought a trial by media. This claim is explicitly stated, and immediately appeals to the emotions of the reader in the opening par through the use of highly poignant language, when he states,

“Cardinal George Pell is the victim of one of the most vicious witch hunts to disgrace this country. It is shameful. Disgusting. Frightening”.


Bolt provides support for his central claim by seeking to discredit opposing arguments, demonstrated through his reference to Tim Minchin, who released the song ‘Come Home (Cardinal Pell)’ (Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtHOmforqxk) in order to raise money for the victims of sexual abuse to fly to Rome to be present while Pell gave evidence to the Royal Commission. Bolt explicitly states that Minchin was “falsely portraying him as a defender — even a friend — of Paedophile priests”, and thereby directly implies that Pell is completely innocent of any crime. Bolt characterises Pell as a helpless scapegoat for the crimes of others, who continues to be ‘dehumanised’ and ‘hated’ by the media, although he has always sought to help the victims of child sexual abuse. He refers to Pell’s creation of the ‘Melbourne Response’- an organisation to help protect the victims of sexual abuse, while incorporating his own experience to provide further justification when he says,

I know Pell. “Sociopathic” is a lie”.



Tim Minchin performing “Come Home (Cardinal Pell)’ (The Project)


Bolt continues to discredit opposing arguments, ranging from that of publications such as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, to journalist Kristina Keneally who ‘taunted’ Pell. Interestingly enough, Keneally also mentions Bolt in her own article, when she seeks to similarly discredit him by implying that he was unable to condemn Pell, no matter the evidence. Bolt makes many appeals to fact, stating that each accusation brought against Pell stands unproven and lacks sufficient evidence.


Essentially, Bolt seeks to discredit the majority of the Australian media and create a sense of sympathy for Pell, under the assumption that the bulk of his readership holds a negative opinion of the Cardinal. He achieves this through appeals to fact, ethics and self-evaluation, which seek to sway the opinions of the audience and question the information they had previously been exposed to through a hard line, heated approach.


Similarly, Miranda Devine’s article, ‘Pell punished for trying to aid victims’ functions on the primary explicit argument that Pell is an innocent and wrongly accused man, who is being punished for trying to help the victims of child sexual abuse. While Devine takes a less dramatic approach, and focuses more on fact than emotion to support her main argument, she paints the Cardinal in a similar light to Bolt- an honest man of ill-health who is considered ‘fair game’ by the media and the Australian public, who has experienced unjustified cruelty.


Devine also draws a large focus to Pell’s creation of the Melbourne Response, and how his compassion for victims has essentially made him more vulnerable to being unjustly blamed for such crimes. She says,

“This is the profound unfairness of the attacks on Pell. He alone of any church leader in Australia responded to the crisis of child sexual abuse…”


Devine not only blames the public and the media for making Pell a “whipping boy” and a “scapegoat”, but also seeks to discredit the Victorian Police, whose allegations she describes as “vague” and “appalling”, thereby continuing to provide support for her main argument by essentially ripping apart any claims against Pell.


A prominent similarity between Divine and Bolts’ articles is the lack of reference to the victims themselves, and their willingness to dismiss any claims made against Pell as unjustified and lacking evidence. Both opinions have been greatly criticised by the readerships of each respective newspaper due to each authors’ dismissal of victims’ accounts, particularly in relation to allegations against Pell in regards to sexual abuse he may have committed during his time in Ballarat. Both authors exhibit similar persuasive strategies in their dealing with opposing arguments, in that they characterise Pell as an innocent, ethical man who has been wrongfully accused of these crimes with no real evidence.


In sharp contrast to Bolt and Devine, Kristina Keneally of the Guardian seeks to vilify Pell, by claiming that he has essentially shifted blame to anyone but himself in her article, Once again Cardinal Pell has thrown his men to the wolves – it’s everyone’s fault but his’. Keneally’s main claim is more implicit than explicit, due to the fact that she is unable to unambiguously state that Pell is guilty, however it functions on this assumption that her audience is likely to agree with. In the opening par, Keneally makes a direct appeal to authority when she refers to a quote by church historian Father Campion, supporting the metaphor of Pell ‘throwing his men to the wolves’ which thereby acts as key underlying support for Keneally’s claims. She characterises Pell through use of his own words, particularly in regards to Gerald Ridsdale, to which Pell stated that “It was a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me … I had no reason to turn my mind to the evils Ridsdale had perpetrated.” In response, Keneally states,


Let’s set aside that perhaps any priest – indeed, any human with a functioning conscience – might have shown some interest once stories and rumours started to swirl in Ballarat… Pell had more reasons than most to turn his mind to what Ridsdale was perpetrating”


Keneally essentially highlights the claim that Pell did indeed know about the abuse, yet failed to act until he came into power, as to avoid threatening his own career. Pell was Ridsdale’s housemate during the time that he was assaulting young children, and was part of the committee that relocated Ridsdale time and time again. Through incorporating these simple facts, Keneally is able to provide straightforward justification for her argument that Pell is responsible for the crime of covering up such abuse, by allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions. She is effectively asking the reader- how could he not have known? Being so involved with Ridsdale, who has been formerly charged with over 50 accounts of child sexual abuse, surely he would have observed enough to lead him to intervene?



Ridsdale (L) and Pell (R) arriving to court in 1993


Keneally continues to appeal to Pell’s claims against other members of the church to develop her argument, before asserting her secondary claim- that Pell only addressed any issues once he was appointed Archbishop, when he “decided to clean up the problems of which he had previously been unaware” In all, Keneally addresses a factor that both Bolt and Devine had previously ignored- the testimony of Pell himself in regards to being completely uninformed on the crimes going on around him.



Susie O’Brien’s article, ‘Cardinal George Pell should step aside while police investigate child sexual abuse claims’ holds many similarities to Keneally’s article in that it casts serious doubt on the innocence of the Cardinal in response to the allegations made against him. O’Brien’s highly recommendatory argument is that to leave Pell in his position of great power and influence during the investigations critically undermines the church and what it stands for. She states,


“This matter has the potential to not only undermine faith in the cardinal, but in the entire church hierarchy… Members of the public as well as members of the church deserve better from an organisation that’s supposed to stand for compassion and caring for others”


While O’Brien doesn’t explicitly imply that Pell is guilty of said accusations, her tone and style of writing as well as her inclusion of evidence that incriminates Pell demonstrates her underlying opinion of him- clearly, if she believed in Pell’s innocence like Bolt and Devine, she would have completely refrained from calling for him to step down as cardinal. It is interesting to observe how O’Brien characterises Pell, and how her focus shifts from criticising the church to Pell himself as part of the “cycle of abuse and reabuse”, stating that there is “plentiful evidence to justify Cardinal Pell’s appearance at the commission in Ballarat”.


Therefore, Susie O’Brien’s article functions on the assumption that the reader generally agrees that Pell is or may be guilty of the allegations brought against him, a similarity that runs through all four articles, and supported by the general consensus of the media and the Australian public. Like Keneally, O’Brien leaves her argument open to interpretation by providing the facts, yet clearly demonstrates her subjectivity towards the issue, particularly through her description of his being the “third most powerful Catholic on the globe” as an “outrage and disgrace”, using highly emotive language that seeks to elicit a similar opinion from the reader, and demonstrate the immorality of the church. She also refers to two sexual abuse victims who claim to have told the Cardinal about the abuse, claims that have been vehemently denied by Pell. O’Brien thereby was able to mount her argument by appearing initially objective towards Pell, but gradually including evidence that would be more likely to grab the readers’ attention and impact their opinion more effectively.


The four texts thereby demonstrate two principal opposing opinions of Cardinal Pell and the accusations that have been brought against him. While Bolt and Devine are completely in support of Pell and believe that the media has essentially villainised him and tainted his achievements, Keneally and O’Brien both demonstrate a fundamental belief that the evidence brought against Pell is too overwhelming to be cast as false. A key similarity between the texts is that they all seem to function on the assumption that the readers agree with the general consensus of the media and accept that Pell is or may be guilty. This assumption justifies Bolt and Divine’s articles somewhat, as they are forced to employ more severe language and writing style to attempt to sway the existing opinion of the reader, while O’Brien and Keneally simply supply facts that are already known to the majority of Australians, as to increase the impact and persuasiveness of their article, as well as relying on direct quotes to increase the legitimacy of their central claims. In all, it is very difficult to objectively judge whether the negative characterisation of Cardinal Pell is warranted due to a lack of conviction; however, it is clear that the evidence at hand is quite extensive and crucial to this evaluation, which is quickly dismissed by both Bolt and Devine as false.

Word Count: 2230




Article 1- Bolt, Andrew 2016, Pell Is The Victim Of A Vicious Witch Hunt. The Herald Sun, Accessed 2 November 2016. Available at: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/opinion/andrew-bolt/cardinal-george-pell-is-the-victim-of-a-vicious-witch-hunt/news-story/29e8036f329dfee742adf48949ed8743


Article 2- Devine, Miranda 2016, Pell punished for trying to aid victims. The Daily Telegraph, Accessed 2 November 2016. Available at:



Article 3: Keneally, Kristina 2016, Once again Cardinal Pell has thrown his men to the wolves – it’s everyone’s fault but his. The Guardian, Accessed 2 November 2016. Available at:



Article 4: O’Brien, Susie 2016, Cardinal George Pell should step aside while police investigate child sexual abuse claims. The Advertiser, Accessed 2 November 2016. Available at:



Minchin, Tim 2016. “Come Home (Cardinal Pell) – Tim Minchin”. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtHOmforqxk




















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