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George Pell charged

It’s not quite the madness you might have expected. At the directions hearing, back in July 2017, I had arrived to see a great snaking line of people who had started arriving at dawn — and his arrival was a state of frenzied bedlam. All that had been for a 10-minute hearing; you’d think the actual sentencing of the highest ranking Catholic to ever be convicted of child sex offences would be several magnitudes more crowded. But it’s not. 

Of course, the bank of cameras are here as I rock up a bit after 8am: presenters for Sky, Ten, Today, rehearsing their lines, behind them a cohort of middle-aged women in navy blue, wearing several badges — some from Care Leavers Australiasia Network (CLAN) — and holding signs and moving them so the ABC can get them into the background of their shot. To the right, a little coffee stall, which must have expected to do a more roaring trade that it currently is. 

Then there’s the derealisation of it all: the make-up that’s meant to look normal under lights on TV, the familiar newsreader rhythm stopping and starting in front of cameras that aren’t on. Events like Pell’s trial always look more normal, more real, on TV. In fact, Pell’s trial has occupied this unreal position more than most major stories. Apart from the unprecedented magnitude of the conviction, it was a media circus no one could really report, occupying some parallel universe that was alluded to by those in the know, but that couldn’t be directly referred to. Now, a coterie of high-profile journos are here for the circus — Shannon Deery, Tony Wright, Lucie Morris-Marr, BuzzFeed’s Lane Sainty. Sarah Ferguson chats to Louise Milligan.

The sentencing is broadcast live, a minor concession, perhaps, to the strained relationship between the media and the judiciary. Pell’s case had become flashpoint around the long simmering arguments around access to information in the Victorian court system and the use of suppression orders. Journalists who had turned up every day to cover the case couldn’t tell their readers what a Google search or a US-based relative could. That was, until last month, when the second trial against Pell fell apart and the suppression orders were lifted. And now, a live broadcast of the sentencing, in the interests of “transparency and an accessible communication of the work of the court”. 

At around 9am, the vibe begins to resemble an airport lounge, with people beginning to shuffle into lines, which eventually swell and spill out onto the stairs leading up to the courtroom. People surreptitiously curl around the edges of the tightening knot at the door, casually attempting to get a better spot without showing it. Still, it’s all convivial and relaxed. 

We eventually do the public-transport shuffle in through the single door. The place is full — all rows of chairs in the gallery are taken, and there is a little L shape of people standing at the back corner, but again, it’s not madness. 

And then, after a long wait, during which the speed date small talk (“Who are you here with? How long have you been there?”) withers to an indistinct hum, four or five uniformed police officers enter at the back of the room, and from a door wedged into the rear corner where the dock is located, he silently lumbers in, and the whole air of unreality ramps up — now beyond surreal — as an entire room turns in their chairs, takes a breath, and looks at him, silent and still as a painting. 

Justice Peter Kidd gives fulsome remarks around his sentencing, noting the unique context in which Pell has been tried. His remarks are measured, but a straight report doesn’t quite give a sense of the surreal way it veers from sympathy to unequivocal condemnation. With breathtaking coolness, Kidd observes “It’s a matter of speculation how long you have left, but you may not live to be released from jail… “

Kidd’s remarks also address the recurring conservative argument — why would an ambitious and intelligent man like Pell commit such a brazen act. He described Pell’s attack as “breathtakingly arrogant”, saying Pell’s authority as the archbishop at the time may have led him to the conclusion that he could handle whatever happened if someone had walked in. 

And all the while Pell sits at the back of the court, betraying no flicker of anything. Even as Kidd recounts, in moment-by-moment detail, what he did to two children, all those years ago, nothing. There is no equivocation, no allegedly — not now. Pell, as these details are listed, just peers silently forward, looking no more perturbed or engaged than a grandfather half watching a game show after lunch.

Much more emotion is shown by the survivor group representatives. As Kidd talks, a thin wiry man in navy blue, a shock of white hair bristling from his lined, darkened face, squeezes his haunted eyes shut, and hunches forward in his chair. Like all the survivors of child abuse here, one can’t help but be moved by the awful double wounding a day like today must represent. They have to be here, they have to witness with their own eyes the proof that now, no level of privilege will save you from the consequences of this crime. And yet, hearing these stories must be unbearable. 

And then Kidd sentences Pell to a total of six years (he’ll be 81 by the time he’s eligible for parole), and we all turn and watch silently as the judge’s assistant brings him the paperwork that, upon his signature, registers him as a sex offender. And we all silently watch, and the unreality is sucked out of the room like it was an airlock, and you remember what you’re watching. And the police take him away.  

As we shuffle out, I pass the court sketch artist and see on the chair beside her the first draft of her rendering of Pell — and in that colourful, defined picture, he looks more like the figure we recognise. Of course, once the inevitable appeal is filed, the story will return to unreality. 

Peter Fray

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