Getting the damned back together: George Pell to spend time with familiar faces

Pell accompanies paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale to court in 1993. Photo: Geoff Ampt
Pell accompanies paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale to court in 1993. Photo: Geoff Ampt

Now his appeal has been denied, George Pell is likely to join at least seven other current and former Catholic clerics who have been locked up in Ararat for sex crimes against children.

Five of those seven priests and brothers already imprisoned at the Hopkins Correctional Centre, 200 kilometres west of Melbourne, worked in the Ballarat archdiocese and would be known to Australia's most senior cleric, who has been in custody since February.

Pell, a former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne and senior Vatican figure, is likely to spend three years in prison after his conviction for abusing two choirboys in the 1990s was this week upheld in a 2-1 decision on appeal to Victoria's highest court. His legal team is believed to be preparing to seek leave to appeal that decision in the High Court.

Sources say that Pell is likely to be transferred to the Hopkins centre, a medium security facility whose 762 inmates are overwhelmingly sex offenders and others, including corrupt police, who have to be isolated from the general prison population.

George Pell will serve out his prison term after Victoria's highest court rejected his appeal. Photo: Jason South

George Pell will serve out his prison term after Victoria's highest court rejected his appeal. Photo: Jason South

Most notable among those imprisoned at the Hopkins centre is paedophile ex-priest Gerald Ridsdale - Pell's former housemate at Ballarat's St Alipius presbytery in the 1970s.

The shadow of Ridsdale has dogged Pell since he was photographed accompanying the former cleric to court when he was first tried for sexually abusing children during the 1990s.

Pell was raised in the goldrush city of Ballarat, and started his career in the vast Ballarat archdiocese, which covers western and central Victoria, from Portland in the state's south-west to Mildura in the north.

During hearings on cases of child sexual abuse by clergy in Ballarat, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse heard that Ridsdale had raped a girl at the St Alipius presbytery between 1972 and 1973 while another priest was present.

Despite persistent questioning over several days, Ridsdale said he was unable to remember who that priest was, or who his housemates were at the presbytery at that time. Church records showed that Ridsdale had lived at the presbytery in 1973 with Pell and another priest.

Another inmate at Ararat has, along with Ridsdale, been convicted of the abuse of former pupils at St Alipius Primary School in Ballarat.

Robert Best arriving at court with his lawyer. Photo: Ken Irwin

Robert Best arriving at court with his lawyer. Photo: Ken Irwin

Robert Charles Best, 76, abused more than 30 children between 1968 and 1988 at schools in Ballarat, Box Hill, Moonee Ponds and Geelong.

He was jailed in 2011 for at least 11 years for abusing 11 boys, then faced court again in 2017 for further offences, at which point a judge ordered him to serve 161/2 years in prison, dated from March 2010 (when he was first taken into custody) before he could be eligible for parole.

According to evidence the order gave to the royal commission, the Christian Brothers spent more than $1.5 million on his legal defence. As of 2018, Best is no longer a member of the order.

Edward "Teddy" Dowlan - also jailed for abusing children while teaching at St Alipius in the 1970s alongside Best and Ridsdale, as well as for similar offences at schools in Melbourne, Geelong and Warrnambool - remains in custody, but not at Ararat. Dowlan changed his name to Ted Bales after he was first convicted.

Defrocked priests Robert Claffey and Paul David Ryan, and Christian Brother John Laidlaw, who is also still a member of the order, were each convicted on the same day in July of child sexual abuse, including in the regional cities of Ballarat and Warrnambool. All three are being held at Ararat.

Other ex-clergy incarcerated at the Hopkins centre include defrocked priest David Edwin Rapson, who raped and indecently assaulted students between the mid-1970s and 1990, including at Rupertswood in Sunbury.

Former student priest Paul Pavlou, jailed in March for raping his dying friend's 12-year-old son in 2003-04, is also held there.

Hopkins Correctional Centre in Ararat, where Pell is likely to serve his prison sentence. Photo: Justin McManus

Hopkins Correctional Centre in Ararat, where Pell is likely to serve his prison sentence. Photo: Justin McManus

Religious ministry is likely to be offered to Pell in prison, by members of the prison's pastoral care and chaplaincy team.

In September, the Ballarat Archdiocese posted an advertisement on its website for a part-time pastoral care worker in Ararat, employed by the agency Catholic Care, at Hopkins Correctional Centre.

"We are currently seeking a pastoral care practitioner to be an integral part of the chaplaincy and pastoral care team contributing to high-quality pastoral care practice for prisoners, to prisoners' families to ex-prisoners and to staff within the prison," the advertisement reads.

"The incumbent will be required to respond effectively to the diverse spiritual and religious needs of prisoners, the prisoner's families, to ex-prisoners and staff, particularly during times of parole hearings and the accompanying emotional challenges that come with this."

As a high-profile figure and child-sex offender, Pell is at serious risk of violence from other inmates because in the prison hierarchy, paedophiles are regarded as "the lowest of the low" and are routinely threatened with beatings and stabbings.

Pell is being held in a high-security protection unit in the Melbourne Assessment Prison where, for his own safety, he is required to spend 23 hours a day in his cell.

Another potential destination for Pell is Langi Kal Kal Prison, a minimum security unit of 428 prisoners situated halfway between Ballarat and Ararat where protection prisoners are also held. Both Hopkins and Langi Kal Kal are equipped to deal with older prisoners with health issues, as well as segregating them from other prisoners.

A former member of the clergy who was held at Langi Kal Kal said he was among the general prison populace for some of his time there, then in a house shared with five other inmates.

"You go in, you start off in cubicles, which are you to 40 people at least. They see how people fit in, then put them in medium-sized houses, in groups of six ... If they do something wrong they go back to the general populace."

He said he had no more protection than any other prisoner while there and felt many assaults there were not reported due to fears of reprisal.

"I had the same fears for my safety as anybody else," he said.

"The more people you spoke to, you realise how unsafe it was. A lot of things are not reported, people put up with bashings. You wouldn't dob anyone in."

But he said he thought Pell, who he met in passing decades ago, would be "fine there, if he doesn't become depressed and mixes in".

"The first couple of weeks [other inmates] pick on you, they get stuck into you. I befriended people who were bigger than me..."

He said he thought Pell had probably been through the worst of the process - being held on remand, and not knowing where you would be imprisoned and for how long.

"The remand centre's the worst, it's terrible."

SMH/The Age, with Chris Vedelago

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue 1300 224 636.

Timeline of Pell's rise and fall

Cardinal George Pell, Australia's highest-ranking Catholic, was found guilty in 2018 of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s. The abuse took place at St Patrick's Cathedral in East Melbourne, when Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne and was leading the Melbourne Response, a compensation scheme for victims of paedophile priests

Here is a timeline of his career, the police investigation and his court trials.

  • His career
  • June 8, 1941 Cardinal George Pell was born in Ballarat - Trinity Sunday. His father, George senior, was a gold miner and his mother a devout Irish Catholic. Pell was raised in the Ballarat home built by his maternal grandfather. He rose to become the Archbishop in both Melbourne and Sydney, before going on to Rome where he became one of Pope Francis' most trusted advisors in the Vatican. Pell was educated at St Patrick's College in Ballarat and Corpus Christi College in Werribee, before studying at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome. He has a PhD in church history from Oxford University and a masters in education from Monash University.
  • 1966 Ordained a priest for the Ballarat diocese in St Peter's Basilica.
  • 1971 Assistant Priest at Swan Hill.
  • 1973-1983 Assistant Priest at Ballarat East parish.
  • 1978-1979 Episcopal Vicar for Education in the Ballarat diocese.
  • 1987 Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne.
  • 1993 Pell walks priest Gerald Ridsdale to court in Melbourne. Ridsdale is later convicted of a string of serious child sex abuse charges and becomes known as one of Australia's most notorious paedophile priests.
  • 1996 Appointed Archbishop of Melbourne.
  • 2001 Appointed Archbishop of Sydney, the Australian Catholic church's most senior position.
  • 2003 Appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Sacred College of Cardinals.
  • 2014 Appointed to be the first prefect of the church's Secretariat for the Economy - in effect the Vatican's treasurer. He is welcomed into the Pope's inner circle of trusted advisors known as the Group of Nine, or C-9.
  • The investigation
  • 2015 A man in his 30s contacts police to report he was sexually abused by Pell in the 1990s as a choirboy, at St Patrick's Cathedral. He also reports that his friend, who died in accidental circumstances as an adult, was also sexually assaulted by Pell.
  • February 20, 2016 It's revealed that a Victoria Police taskforce has been investigating historical sexual abuse allegations against Cardinal Pell.
  • February 28, 2016 Giving evidence in Rome to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Cardinal Pell admits to "catastrophic failures" by the Catholic Church in relation to child sexual abuse, an issue he says was on his radar from the early 1970s.
  • July 27, 2016 The ABC's 7.30 program details complaints against Cardinal Pell being investigated by Victoria Police.
  • October 2016 Victorian detectives travel to Rome to meet Cardinal Pell, who voluntarily participates in an interview. He emphatically denies the allegations when they are put to him.
  • February 2017 A police brief of evidence regarding sex assault allegations against Cardinal Pell is handed to prosecutors for review.
  • May 13, 2017 ABC journalist Louise Milligan's book Cardinal: The Rise And Fall of George Pell is published. The book contains new allegations of sexual abuse against Cardinal Pell.
  • May 14, 2017 Cardinal Pell's lawyers strongly deny the allegations raised in the book.
  • May 16, 2017 Victoria Police receives advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions about the brief of evidence. Police refuse to comment.
  • May 18, 2017 Cardinal Pell restates his innocence in Rome, saying: "We have to respect due process, wait until it is concluded and obviously I will continue to co-operate fully."
  • May 25, 2017 Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton says a decision about charging Cardinal Pell is "imminent".
  • June 29, 2017 Victoria Police announces the cardinal will be charged on summons in relation to "multiple" offences. In Rome, Cardinal Pell denies the allegations and says: "I'm looking forward, finally, to having my day in court." He returns to Australia in following days.
  • July 26, 2017 Cardinal Pell faces Melbourne Magistrates Court, where his lawyer Robert Richter, QC, says his client intends to plead not guilty to all charges.
  • March 1, 2018 Prosecutors announce they will withdraw one of the charges because one of the accusers has died.
  • March 5, 2018 Pell faces Melbourne Magistrates Court for a committal hearing, which determines whether he is to face trial.
  • May 1, 2018 Magistrate Belinda Wallington commits Pell to trial on multiple charges of historic sexual assault involving multiple accusers. She strikes out other charges. Pell pleads not guilty.
  • August 15, 2018 Pell's first trial starts in the County Court, on allegations he sexually abused two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s as Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell pleads not guilty to five charges.
  • September 20, 2018 The jury is discharged after it is unable to reach a verdict after five days of deliberations.
  • November 7, 2018 A retrial begins on the same allegations. Pell pleads not guilty to five charges.
  • December 11, 2018 Pell is found guilty of five charges of sexual assault. Chief Judge Peter Kidd grants bail for Pell to return to court in February 2019 for a pre-sentence hearing but advises him he will be remanded in custody after that hearing. But the verdict cannot be reported due to a suppression order put in place ahead of another trial Pell is due to face over allegations he abused boys in a swimming pool in Ballarat in the 1970s. Pell is allowed to travel to Sydney on bail for knee surgery.
  • February 26, 2019 Pell's guilty verdict is revealed publicly for the first time after the other 'swimming pool' trial is abandoned due to lack of admissible evidence and the suppression order is lifted.
  • February 27, 2019 Pell returns to court for a pre-sentence hearing and is remanded in custody. His legal team launches an appeal.
  • March 13, 2019 Pell is sentenced to six years' jail, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months. He signs the sex offenders register.
  • June 5 and 6, 2019 Pell returns to court for an appeal hearing where his lawyers argue why he should be acquitted.
  • August 21, 2019 Pell's appeal dismissed 2-1 by the Court of Appeal judges. The convictions have been upheld.