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“My Search For The Truth Over George Pell”

A Melbourne journalist explains how she helped break one of the biggest scoops of the decade

It was the most important phone call of my career. Sitting at my desk in Melbourne at 4pm on Friday 19 February 2016 I was speaking to the Sydney representatives of Cardinal George Pell. 

They didn’t like me much. For nearly a year I’d been asking difficult questions about the Cardinal for articles for the Herald Sun where I worked as a senior writer.

“We call you Lucie in the sky with diamonds,” his female communications advisor had once said jokingly.

But she wasn’t laughing this time. I broke the news to them that we needed a comment regarding my pending exclusive front page report that Dr Pell, then aged 74, had been the subject of a year-long secret police probe over allegations of historic sexual abuse.

It was a report that was shocking to write; after all, it’s not everyday you pull off a scoop regarding the third most powerful figure in the Vatican. My bosses were thrilled, jittery and tense in equal measure.

It was in my first weeks on the paper, in 2015, that I had first been tasked with investigating the Cardinal, after the paper’s own enquiries had run cold a year earlier. 

There were many questions surrounding what Dr Pell may have seen, heard or known as a young priest in the dark era of systematic sexual abuse in Victoria.

The 10-month investigation, which initially included writing a 10,000 word memo for my bosses on Pell and highlighting new sources to explore, took me across Victoria from Gippsland to Ballarat. 

I was enjoying being back in the newspaper game after having children, and was pursuing the story with gusto.

As a mother with young children, I also felt deeply connected to the plight of those who had suffered sexual abuse from attending the harrowing testimonies of the Ballarat hearings in May 2015. I remember sitting as tears fell, along with many with others in the court room, as we listened to the horrors which so many in the town had endured. 

Each shocking story made me more determined to leave no stone unturned in my enquiries regarding Cardinal Pell.

As the months stretched, I covered other stories for the Herald Sun too – including prisons, crime, ice addiction and terrorism – but nearly every week I would return to my enquiries on Pell.

Getting sensitive sources to trust me took the longest time of all. 

But finally, I had the story.

I just needed a comment from the Cardinal himself.

I could see my front page being laid out by the art director across the newsroom floor. The headline screamed POLICE PROBE PELL and would soon be followed up by other media in Australia and around the world.

“It’s the middle of the night he’ll be asleep,” Pell’s representative complained when I insisted that we needed a response.

“You better wake up the Cardinal,” I responded.

He would surely appreciate a right of reply.

He did.

Dr Pell rose from his bed to strongly deny the allegations. His supporters in the media – even in my own newspaper –  were livid, joining him in publicly demanding an investigation into my investigation.

An investigation by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) was then announced due to allegations in the media of leaks from police. 

Fast-forward 16 months later and this week the Cardinal was once again woken up in the early hours by another call from Melbourne.

If he thought my call was bad, this was worse. Far worse.

This call would send shockwaves through the inner sanctum of the Holy See where Cardinal Pell has been working closely with Pope Francis as the head of finances.

This call would involve standing down from his position and travelling across the globe to face a courtroom for the most grave of reasons.

The Cardinal was told by his lawyers that SANO Taskforce of Victoria Police had made the decision to charge him after receiving advice from prosecutors last month.

“Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges and there are multiple complainants,” Deputy Commissioner Patton said.

The Cardinal was told he would be required to face the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on 18 July, Deputy Commissioner Patton said.

After the sun rose in Rome on Thursday the Cardinal himself emerged to begin the biggest battle of his life; to vehemently deny any wrongdoing after being charged with sex offences in his native Australia.

He told a news conference at the Holy See: “I’m looking forward finally to having my day in court.”

Cardinal Pell will be there on July 26. 

And so will I.


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