Defending Pell: Father Brennan and his Catholic Church have learnt nothing

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Father Frank Brennan's (right) defence of Cardinal George Pell only makes the situation worse for victims of child sex abuse (Screenshots via YouTube)

Father Frank Brennan’s position on the Pell case is a staggering admission that the Catholic Church has learnt nothing – despite the Royal Commission – about child sexual abuse, its aftermath and its effects on victims, families and communities, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IN AN ARTICLE in The Australian on 28 February, 'Father Frank Brennan on Cardinal George Pell guilty verdict', Father Frank Brennan –Jesuit priest, professor of law at the Public Policy Institute of the Australian Catholic University and visiting professorial fellow at the University of NSW – indicated 'he did not question the honesty and truthfulness of the victim' in the Pell case and that a 'suspension of final judgement meant "to disrespect" to anyone involved.'

Cardinal George Pell has been convicted on five charges: one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 and four counts of indecent assault of a child under the age of 16. The convictions relate to Pell’s offending against two 13-year-old choirboys.

In this Eureka Street piece, published on 26 February, Brennan wrote:

I was very surprised by the verdict. In fact, I was devastated. My only conclusion is that the jury must have disregarded many of the criticisms so tellingly made by Richter of the complainant's evidence and that, despite the complainant being confused about all manner of things, the jury must nevertheless have thought – as the recent Royal Commission discussed – that children who are sexually violated do not always remember details of time, place, dress and posture.


Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him. The jurors must have judged the complainant to be honest and reliable even though many of the details he gave were improbable if not impossible.

'Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong' does not mesh with Brennan’s later claim that he 'did not question the honesty and truthfulness of the victim', when he wrote the Eureka piece.

Neither does it correspond with this:

'The jurors must have judged the complainant to be honest and reliable even though many of the details he gave were improbable if not impossible.'

In other words, the jury was so incompetent or unintelligent as to be unable to see the improbability and impossibility of the victim’s testimony. Remember Brennan, unlike the jury, has not heard the victim’s testimony, yet he feels he is competent to criticise their judgement of it. 

In fact, Brennan’s entire Eureka piece questions the honesty and truthfulness of the victim, despite the fact that Brennan did not hear the victim’s testimony and so has no legal basis on which to question his veracity.

Brennan claims he wrote the Eureka piece because he felt he had a responsibility to inform the public about the legal complexities of the case as dispassionately as possible. Remember, this is a professor of law and a Jesuit priest claiming to inform the public of the legal complexities of a high profile case against a Cardinal of his Church when he has not seen or heard the evidence of the complainant.

One could conclude that – extraordinary as it seems – the victim’s evidence is irrelevant as far as Frank Brennan is concerned.

Brennan does not “believe” a penis can be produced from the robes worn by Pell on that day. One wonders how a cardinal pees.

This conclusion is borne out by the foundation of Brennan’s article, which is his belief that the garments worn by Pell at the time of the assaults for which he has been convicted, were such that his erect penis could not have been released from under them:

Witnesses familiar with liturgical vestments had been called who gave compelling evidence that it was impossible to produce an erect penis through a seamless alb. An alb is a long robe, worn under a heavier chasuble. It is secured and set in place by a cincture, which is like a tightly drawn belt. An alb cannot be unbuttoned or unzipped, the only openings being small slits on the side to allow access to trouser pockets underneath. The complainant's initial claim to police was that Pell had parted his vestments, but an alb cannot be parted — it is like a seamless dress.


Later, the complainant said that Pell moved the vestments to the side. An alb secured with a cincture cannot be moved to the side. The police never inspected the vestments during their investigations, nor did the prosecution show that the vestments could be parted or moved to the side as the complainant had alleged. The proposition that the offences charged were committed immediately after Mass, by a fully robed archbishop in the sacristy with an open door and in full view from the corridor seemed incredible to my mind.

The phrase ”to my mind” indicates that this is not an informed legal opinion, but rather a personal opinion. Brennan does not “believe” a penis can be produced from the robes worn by Pell on that day. One wonders how a cardinal pees.

Because Brennan does not “believe” a penis can be produced from these robes, he concludes that the victim has given an “improbable if not impossible account” of events.

Brennan does “believe” in God, the Virgin Mary, the Virgin Birth, angels, Satan, saints and apostolic succession. However, he does not believe a penis can find its way out of an alb and into the mouth of a terrified child.

Are we to substitute Brennan’s “beliefs” for the unanimous findings of a jury?  

Brennan received a great deal of criticism for his Eureka piece, including from this writer. The core criticisms are concerned with the damage done to survivors of child sexual abuse by the disbelief of those in authority. Apparently, these criticisms – and perhaps being cast in the same mould as Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine who both similarly denigrated the victim – have stung Brennan into a muddled backflip. Here, he attempts to justify his original stance of disbelief – and his commentary – that at times borders on mockery of Pell’s victim.

Not satisfied with denigrating the victim and the 12 women and men of the jury who reached the guilty verdict, Brennan proceeds to attempt to invalidate the appeal, whether it succeeds or fails:

Should the appeal fail, I hope and pray that Cardinal Pell, heading for prison, is not the unwitting victim of a wounded nation in search of a scapegoat. Should the appeal succeed, the Victoria Police should review the adequacy of the police investigation of these serious criminal charges.

According to Brennan if the appeal fails, it’s because Pell has been made a scapegoat. If the appeal succeeds, the Victorian Police are inadequate. In other words, Brennan will accept no position other than that Pell is innocent.

This, from a professor of law, who has not, remember, heard the complainant’s evidence.

Brennan’s Eureka Street piece has allegedly been distributed to all parents in some Catholic schools. It is a staggering admission that the Catholic Church has learnt nothing – despite the Royal Commission – about child sexual abuse, its aftermath and its effects on victims, families and communities. Brennan has done nothing to mitigate the suffering and anguish of victims and survivors.

Indeed, in casting doubt on Pell’s victim and the jury who found him guilty, despite the efforts of his highly respected legal counsel who subjected the victim to days of harrowing cross-examination, Brennan has made the situation so much worse. It is worse not only for those directly involved but for many other survivors who still suffer from the despair and hopelessness of not being believed.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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