Louise Milligan’s George Pell story her most difficult

Louise Milligan has devoted the past few years of her life to investigating allegations about Ballarat-born Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic.

As a result, Ballarat is a place that is close to her heart – her second home – but one that saddens her.

Milligan was brought up as a very strict Catholic, though she left the church when she was a teenager.

She began to report on stories about abuse in the Catholic Church through her work on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse for the ABC’s 7.30 program in 2014, before making the trip to attend hearings in Ballarat the following year.

At that time she wrote a number of stories, including about Ballarat priest Gerald Ridsdale.

But it was when she heard Julie Stewart’s story in late 2015 – a Doveton Parish survivor – that the first seed of doubt was planted in her mind about Pell.

Ms Stewart’s story of being abused by Peter Searson haunted Milligan for many reasons.

“Julie was the same age as me, we grew up in Melbourne around the same time and I really felt like I could have been her so easily. I had confession with a paedophile priest,” she said.

“It just so happened he was into boys.”

At the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry in 2013, in giving his evidence, Pell stated that Peter Searson “might have victims”.

Ms Stewart was infuriated by Pell’s evidence and went on to give her own evidence to the Royal Commission in November 2015, when she said that in the 1990s she had received a letter, signed by the then Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell, apologising for her abuse. She was subsequently given $25,000 in compensation through the Melbourne Response, set up by Pell himself.

Pell was supposed to fly to Australia to give evidence to the Royal Commission in Ballarat, but his lawyers, citing he was too ill to fly, made an application for him to do so via video link from Rome.

Louise Milligan

Milligan had been preparing to write about Pell’s evidence by interviewing a number of Ballarat survivors while making arrangements to go to Sydney to cover the Royal Commission.

Then, in 2016, the Herald Sun ran a front page story stating that Victoria Police’s SANO Taskforce was investigating Pell in regards to allegations of child sexual abuse in Ballarat.

“But at that stage I didn’t really understand how long it takes for survivors to come forward. The royal commission found that the average time for survivors of catholic clergy abuse to come forward is 33 years.”

The investigation

She began digging further and called a number of sources in an effort to understand if the allegations the article had made against Pell had any standing; she was told by trusted sources that she was backing the wrong horse.

But then a retired businessman – Les Tyack – came forward with an account of seeing Pell exposing himself to three boys in the change-rooms of the Torquay Surf Club in the 1980s.

Milligan said she found Tyack, a man with “no skin in the game” so compelling that she walked away from the interview convinced without a shred of doubt that he was telling the truth.

For months afterwards Milligan conducted interviews with people from survivor networks, sifted through historical documents and spent hours researching at the State Library of Victoria.

Through her painstaking research, she met with a number of complainants, before reporting allegations against Pell while she was working on ABC’s 7.30 program.

Later, through her role as a Four Corners journalist, Milligan secured exclusive interviews with the family of the choirboy Pell was convicted of abusing at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.

“When I met all of those people, I never had any cause to think that they weren’t telling the truth and I’ve never thought that since,” she said.

The pressure

Researching and reporting on the allegations being made against Pell – Australia’s most senior Catholic figure – and taking on the Church was a huge challenge, but Milligan did not shy away from it.

Rather, she dedicated herself to uncovering the truth with “absolute care and forensic attention”. Continue reading

  • Louise Milligan is the author of Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell.
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