Supporters foot legal bill for Vatican treasurer accused of sex abuse
Exclusive: Vatican won't pay for cardinal's defence
From the United States to Hall's Gap, a tiny hamlet in Victoria, Australia, discreet adverts have been placed in newsletters, parish notices and Catholic publications across the globe.
They start with identical wording: “A number of people are wanting to know where they can contribute to assist Cardinal George Pell with his defence costs.”
The numerous adverts, uncovered by The National, also include bank account details of a special trust fund overseen by a law firm and an email contact address.
The costs in question are in regards to a legal bill likely to run into millions of Australian dollars, as the treasurer for the Vatican faces historic sexual abuse charges in his native country.
The National can confirm officially for the first time that the Vatican is not contributing to his legal bill, leaving one of the most senior figures in the Holy See to seek these funds from his supporters.
The 76-year-old cardinal was charged by a special task force set up to investigate historic sex abuse allegations involving religious and non-government organisations in June last year. He strongly denies the charges.
This week a magistrate at Melbourne Magistrate Court ruled his case would proceed to a higher court, despite dropping half the charges against him, including the more serious ones.
The cardinal, on leave from his post in Rome and currently living in a Sydney seminary, will now face two jury trials for multiple allegations later this year at the County Court of Victoria.
A spokeswoman for Dr Pell at the Archdiocese of Sydney told The National that an independent trust fund was set up after “many people asked how they could assist with his legal costs.”
“The Archdiocese has not contributed to this fund nor has the Vatican provided any funding,” said Katrina Lee, an executive advisor to the Archdiocese of Sydney.
Also, the fund has not been “set-up by or overseen” by the Archdiocese, Ms Lee added.
This is the first time that the cardinal’s representatives have confirmed that the Vatican in is not contributing to the legal fight.
The lawyers in charge of the defence fund operate out of a small office in the Melbourne suburb of Ivanhoe East. When asked about the fund, a spokeswoman for Ferdinand Zito & Associates Pty Ltd told The National: “Unfortunately and regrettably Ferdinand is unable to assist as anything relating to the cardinal comes within the ambit of legal professional privilege.”
Mr Zito attended the Melbourne private Catholic boys school Xavier College between 1963 and 1967. His LinkedIn page notes he is fluent in Italian and has been the principal and director of his firm for 13 years. He states: “My name is on the door…the buck stops at me. I take my role seriously, perform it earnestly and honestly.”
On Friday, as the potential bill became higher following Wednesday's confirmation of two jury trials, the Catholic Weekly in Australia published the trust fund account details for their readers.
Des Cahil, an emeritus professor at RMIT University in Melbourne told The National it is “highly likely” that Dr Pell’s fund will be well supported by many conservative Catholics around the world.
“The result of these trials will dictate his future and his reputation, let alone the moral standing of the conservative right wing faction of the Catholic community worldwide, whom he represents with his seniority and orthodox views,” Prof Cahil said.
It’s not known how much has been donated so far from supporters around the world, other than that it has been sufficient for Dr Pell to engage well known Melbourne law firm Galbally & O’Bryan and one of Australia’s leading criminal barristers, Robert Richter, QC.
Richter, 72, is known for his brutal cross-examining and forensic research. His daily fee is said to be approximately $16,000 AUD (44,000 AED) a day, meaning the final cost for the two trials, due to take place later this year and lasting ten weeks in total, could easily equal the cost of a water-side mansion in Melbourne’s swanky suburb of Brighton.
That the fund has enabled the cardinal to engage the best legal experts for the controversial case has angered some however.
They argue that it is unfair as the accusers themselves are not legally represented with their own counsel during proceedings.
Ingrid Irwin, a lawyer from Ballarat who previously represented two of the accusers in the case against Dr Pell, one of whom passed away in January this year, recently received a payment from Mr Zito owing from the cardinal.
She had submitted an invoice to Dr Pell’s legal team after supplying documents as demanded by a court order from his team.
Ms Irwin told The National she believes the Catholic Church did not want to be seen to be paying directly for the Cardinal’s legal fight.
“He’s more than fortunate to have a trust fund paying but who’s really paying and who's organising the distribution of the adverts for the fund?" she asked.
“The big issue remains that the accusers have no right to a lawyer no matter how rich they are and he’s entitled to the best money can buy.”
The cardinal has been bailed to appear again on May 16 when a judge is expected to confirm dates for the two trials.