Cardinal George Pell at Melbourne's County Court (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

As George Pell heads to the High Court for his final legal showdown, his most rabid supporter — the conservative literary journal Quadrant — is salivating at the outcome. 

Since the cardinal was found guilty of child sex abuse, Quadrant, once renowned for its fierce contrarianism and illustrious contributors, has published an ongoing series of scathing articles attacking the jury, the Victorian Court of Appeal, its “childless” chief justice and the state’s legal establishment. 

In that time, the journal has published over 20 pieces, all of them questioning elements of the verdict or seeking to cast Pell as the victim of a larger, media-driven conspiracy. 

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“George Pell and the SJW Fembots” was the Quadrant story that caused the greatest outrage. Its author Paul Collits — a one-time Australian Conservatives candidate who describes himself on Facebook as a “civic entrepreneur” and “ideas gardener” — argues Pell’s conviction was the  result of a sinister conspiracy of childless feminists, including Victorian Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, and Julia Gillard.

Ferguson’s judgment, Collits argued, “reeks of the legal #MeTooism now embedded in the Victorian justice system”. 

In an earlier piece, Collits argued Pell’s conviction was the result of a media campaign to “stitch up” the cardinal. Pell, Collits argued, was denied a fair trial “due to an ongoing and building, possibly strategic campaign of public attacks and the denigration of his character”. 

Several legal commentators recently told The Sydney Morning Herald that the most extreme of these pieces could be in contempt of court; specifically, that it could amount to “scandalising the court”. Prosecutions under that offence are, however, incredibly rare.

The UK, where the offence originated, abolished it in 2013. Here in Australia, it was most recently considered in 2017, when three Coalition MPs were warned they may have scandalised the court over comments made in The Australian attacking sentencing practices in Victoria.  

Collits isn’t alone. Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant’s editor best known for his denial of the Stolen Generations, has alone written more than 10 articles defending Pell. 

And this week, within a day of the High Court agreeing to hear Pell’s appeal application, Quadrant amped it up again with a gloating column attacking the “absurd conviction” and “the go-to elite of Australia’s opinionistas” with “shabby records for getting it right”.

Quadrant’s histrionic Pell coverage has drawn fierce criticism. According to Louise Milligan, author of Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, and a frequent subject of Quadrant’s attacks, the journal’s coverage of Pell has resorted to “fake news” and “conspiracy theories”. 

“Windschuttle describes himself as a historian. I would have thought that part of being a historian, is that you have to refer to solid evidence. To besmirch the reputation of the most senior judge in Victoria by claiming some sort of feminist conspiracy is insane,” Milligan told Crikey

The legal community, too, lined up to defend Justice Ferguson. Jennifer Batrouney SC, president of the Australian Bar Association, called the attacks “wrong and reprehensible,” and Dr Matt Collins QC, president of the Victorian Bar Association, described the Collits article as “a bizarre conspiracy theory that betrays a profound ignorance of the operation of the criminal justice system”.

For those familiar with Quadrant’s history, its defence of Pell is unsurprising. Founded during the Cold War as an anti-communist publication (with generous funding from the CIA), the publication was once known for its high-brow conservatism, publishing literary A-listers like Les Murray and Donald Horne. After the Berlin Wall fell, editor Robert Manne tried to bring a diversity of opinions on Indigenous rights and neoliberalism to the pages of Quadrant, and was eventually forced to resign.

Quadrant struggled to adapt to a post-communist world, says Martin Krygier, whose father Richard was the journal’s founding editor.

“Unless Quadrant could be positively refashioned, as it was under Robert Manne’s editorship, it was destined to degenerate, which is has,” Krygier, told Crikey.

Since Manne’s departure, Quadrant has become increasingly unhinged. According to LaTrobe University historian Dominic Kelly, the defence of Pell is consistent with Quadrant’s current obsession with generating outrage, and trolling the left at all costs.

But Quadrant’s relationship with the cardinal runs deep. In 2006, when Quadrant celebrated its 50th anniversary with a dinner that attracted a who’s who of the conservative establishment, Pell sat with guest of honour John Howard.

For years, Pell remained a semi-regular contributor to the journal, and his most recent article was published in September last year while the cardinal was in midst of his secret trial.

It still hasn’t been taken down.

Windschuttle, Collits and Quadrant did not respond to requests for comment.

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Peter Fray
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