Detectives have been accused of “single-mindedly” pursuing charges against Cardinal George Pell as a Melbourne court heard Victoria Police set up a taskforce to investigate Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric before receiving a complaint against him.
Details about the police probe, Operation Tethering, were revealed in court for the first time today as one of the detectives who flew to Rome to question the Cardinal gave evidence.
Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan told the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court that the investigation into Cardinal Pell began in March 2013 to ascertain whether he had committed crimes which had gone unreported.
Defence barrister Robert Richter QC told the detective that police had assumed Cardinal Pell had committed serious unreported crimes.
“When Tethering started it was an operation looking for a crime because no crime had been reported,” he said.
“It was an operation looking for a crime and a complainant.”
Complaints ‘put on the backburner’
Detective Superintendent Sheridan agreed that there was a search for potential complainants and that no-one came forward until more than a year after the police investigation had begun.
Mr Richter asked the detective why investigating officers had put serious allegations made by complainants against a nun and teacher “on the backburner” while instead pursuing relatively “benign” allegations made against Cardinal Pell.
“They are supposed to look at serious sex offences … and they did absolutely nothing about the serious allegations that [two complainants] convey,” he said.
“Instead … they single-mindedly just pursued Pell.”
Detective Superintendent Sheridan rejected the assertion, telling the court there could have been a viable explanation.
Magistrate had ‘biased view’
During the senior police officer’s evidence, Mr Richter made an extraordinary request for Magistrate Belinda Wallington to disqualify herself from the case, accusing her of having a “biased view of the evidence”.
The application was swiftly refused.
It was also revealed that Cardinal Pell had asked for the complainants’ police statements before being interviewed by police in October 2016.
The court heard the request was refused but police did supply a summary of the allegations which included dates and locations.
Mr Richter told the court he had supplied police with a dossier, including statements from church officials, nuns and others, in December 2016.
Detective Superintendent Sheridan said he had later told Mr Richter “we’d prefer to interview witnesses ourselves rather than receiving supplied statements”.
The hearing is expected to conclude on Thursday.
It is expected to be several weeks before Ms Wallington announces her decision on whether there’s enough evidence to commit Cardinal Pell to stand trial.
Cardinal Pell is fighting historical sexual offences involving multiple complainants.