An investigative journalist with the ABC has been accused of “distorting” a story about Cardinal George Pell by omitting information to “poison the public’s mind” about the high-ranking Catholic.
Cardinal Pell, 76, faces multiple historical sexual offence charges involving multiple complainants, which he has vehemently and repeatedly denied.
He is facing a committal hearing in Melbourne Magistrates Court to determine whether he stands trial.
On Tuesday, ABC journalist Louise Milligan was questioned by Cardinal Pell’s high-profile defence barrister Robert Richter, QC, who accused her of not conducting proper checks for a story about his client’s alleged offences that aired on the 7.30 program.
Mr Richter accused Ms Milligan of “distorting” the story she presented to “poison the public’s mind” by deliberately omitting information about one of the cardinal’s alleged victims.
The court has previously heard that one of Cardinal Pell’s accusers had given police differing evidence in his statement to the information he conveyed to Ms Milligan during a televised interview.
The discrepancies related to the nature of alleged sexual offending and the placement of the cardinal’s hand during an alleged sexual assault, the court heard.
Ms Milligan told the court she was aware there were differences between the evidence the alleged victim provided to her and police and she questioned the accuser about it before the televised interview and prior to writing her book The Rise and Fall of George Pell.
She told the court: “I asked [the alleged victim] about it because I was being a diligent journalist … I remember talking about it immediately afterwards to my manager.”
Ms Milligan said the alleged victim told her he was being truthful in his evidence to her and that he had difficulty in recalling the exact placement of the cardinal’s hands because it happened so long ago.
“What you did was try and reconcile things by omitting things that would damage the credibility of [the complainant],” Mr Richter said. “You distorted what went to out to the public … to poison the public’s mind.”
Ms Milligan responded: “I completely and utterly reject that.”
She argued the ABC had been transparent about the alleged victim’s criminal history and his “very chequered past” including a history of mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse.
Mr Richter also questioned Ms Milligan over whether on alleged victim was ‘‘off his face’’ when he was interviewed by her.
‘‘I don’t recall him saying he was having a meltdown, he was under great duress and he was having a lot of difficulty,’’ Ms Milligan said.
Mr Richter moved to question Ms Milligan’s credibility as a journalist suggesting she had set out with a vendetta against Cardinal Pell.
But she rejected the suggestion, telling the court she did not initially believe Cardinal Pell was an abuser and began researching the story from a ‘‘sceptical view’’. Ms Milligan repeatedly said she stood by the integrity of her work.
She told the court the decision to run the story on the ABC in 2016 was made after lengthy consultation with her superiors and the national broadcaster’s lawyers.
‘‘They too were aware of every single word said by [the alleged victim] and they too made the decision to run the story as it was,’’ she said.
In her book, Ms Milligan interviewed multiple alleged victims, their family members and other witnesses who are central to the sexual assault charges levelled at Cardinal Pell.
Ms Milligan handed over research notes for the book and background material used to prepare TV reports for the national broadcaster to Cardinal Pell’s lawyers in January, as they prepared his defence to historical sexual assault allegations.
Her book was pulled from sale in Victoria after Cardinal Pell was charged and before the start of the committal hearing.
Throughout the cross-examination, Cardinal Pell sat in a chair next to his lawyers and wrote notes, rarely lifting his head to look at Ms Milligan.
The seats of the court room behind Cardinal Pell were filled mostly by survivors of Catholic clergy sexual abuse and their supporters, as well as journalists.
The hearing, before magistrate Belinda Wallington, continues.