“Cardinal George Pell’s first week in court ends behind closed doors” & related article

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ABC News    Australia

08 March 2018     12:53am

Photo: Crowds outside Cardinal Pell’s committal hearing had eased by the end of the week. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

The police presence has diminished, the international media has dissolved and less than a handful of supporters and detractors occupy the steps of the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.

But despite appearances, it is the end of the first week of one of the most anticipated hearings of the year as Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic cleric fights historical sexual offence charges.

Cardinal George Pell’s committal hearing has sat for the past week, mainly behind a closed door.

The court was emptied of the media and public just 25 minutes after the hearing began last Monday to allow the multiple complainants to begin giving evidence.

It left Cardinal Pell, one of his friends, his legal team, prosecutors, the magistrate, her clerk and police informant to witness the alleged victims give their evidence and be cross-examined for the first time.

The complainants appeared via video link accompanied by a worker from the witness assistance program. They were offered the support of therapy dog Coop, trained especially to help alleged victims through the court process.

It is not known how many people have given evidence or are yet to come.

Just a few journalists remained outside the court’s closed door for the entirety of the week, catching only small snippets of information such as the hearing adjourning early for the day or not sitting the next because a witness was not available.

By the third day of the hearing, only two camera crews and a photographer were waiting outside to capture Cardinal Pell’s arrival and departure.

But the hordes of local and international media are expected to return in a week’s time when the complainants finish giving their evidence and the court reopens.

Up to 50 witnesses will be called during what’s expected to be a four-week hearing which is set to conclude on March 29.


Week one of George Pell’s hearing over

9 News                                   9news.com

Several people have given evidence against Cardinal George Pell during week one of a month-long hearing that will determine if he will stand trial over historical sex offence charges.

The 76-year-old returned to Melbourne Magistrates Court on Friday to resume a committal hearing after it was adjourned mid-week.

It’s understood the hearing was adjourned on Wednesday because a witness was not available.

Except for a short time when the hearing began on Monday, the court has been closed to media and the public while his accusers give evidence from a remote facility, as required by law in sexual offence matters.

The court will remain closed for week two as complainants continue to give evidence in the pre-trial hearing.

It’s expected the hearing will be open to the public and the media thereafter.

Up to 50 people will be called as witnesses during the committal stage.

At the end of the four-week hearing, magistrate Belinda Wallington will decide if Pell, who denies the charges, should stand trial.

He faces multiple historical sex offence charges involving multiple complainants.

Pell has taken leave from his position as Vatican treasurer to fight the charges.

Pell was charged on summons in June 2017 while he was in Rome, and returned to Australia to face court.

At the beginning of his hearing on Monday, defence barrister Robert Richter QC accused Victorian police of failing to follow guidelines for investigating prominent people because of a “presumption of guilt” against the cardinal.

Pell and his legal team will return to court on Tuesday.

© AAP 2018

4 Responses to “Cardinal George Pell’s first week in court ends behind closed doors” & related article

  1. Sylvia says:

    Another week of victim testimony, essentially behind closed doors, and then court will be open to the public and media.

    It’s always interesting to discover the differences in how different countries handle criminal charges. Here in Canada media and the public are free to attend preliminary hearings, but there is a publication ban on all testimony and evidence hence media seldom can not report hence seldom attend. It seems that in Australia virtually no one is permitted into the courtroom for the testimony of victims.

    Note that the media seems to be free to refer to complainants as “victims.” Do you remember when we could do likewise here in Canada? I do too. And truly it was never understood as a determination of guilt or innocence of the accused. Now we have moved on to referencing the “alleged” victim, and the “alleged” sexual abuse Steps forward or back?

    Note too the following: “They were offered the support of therapy dog Coop, trained especially to help alleged victims through the court process.” I am intrigued. Has anyone ever heard of anything like this in Canada?

  2. BC says:

    The Sherbrooke Police service offers this service. Detective Mélanie Bédard who specializes in abuse cases involving young persons is the handler of a support dog named Kanak.

    see here: http://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1068127/kanak-chien-policier-rescousse-enfants-crime

    • Sylvia says:

      Thanks BC. And here is one from Calgary I just found from Calgary:

      Father convicted of sexually abusing daughter who testified with the assistance of a comfort dog

      Calgary Sun

      Published: January 26, 2018

      Updated: January 26, 2018 9:34 AM MST

      Kevin Martin

      Calgary Police therapy dog Hawk.

      Damning testimony from a Calgary girl, given with the assistance of some canine comfort, has resulted in multiple convictions of her father for sexual abuse.

      Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Bruce Millar on Thursday said he disbelieved the dad’s courtroom denials and accepted the evidence of the man’s young daughter.

      The girl, then 7, testified more than three years ago that her biological father brutally sexually abused her between Dec. 1, 2009, and May 2, 2012, when she was between 2 1/2 and 4 1/4 years old.

      She gave her evidence with the help of Calgary police trauma dog Hawk, who calmly lay by her side as she testified via closed-circuit TV from a remote witness room.

      It was believed to be the first time in Canada a dog was used as support for a child sexual-assault complainant giving evidence.

      Millar ruled a month before the girl testified that the canine could sit with her as she testified.

      “You might be the first dog in Canada, Hawk, to be a court-ordered comfort dog,” Millar told the canine at the time.

      Hawk, the Calgary police trauma dog, is doing so well he may get a co-worker

      The judge convicted the dad, whose name can’t be published to protect the victim’s identity, on eight sex-related charges, including incest and unlawful confinement, in connection with incidents in their family home.

      He acquitted the 37-year-old offender of an allegation he also sexually assaulted his then-wife at knifepoint while also abusing the girl during a single incident on Dec. 24, 2011.

      Millar agreed with defence lawyer Alain Hepner there were inconsistencies between three videotaped statements the girl gave to police and her evidence in court, but said they were inconsequential.

      “Many of these are insignificant,” he said.

      “When describing what happened to her and who did it, (she) was positive and clear it was her father.”

      Millar also accepted Crown prosecutor Rosalind Greenwood’s assertion the father’s testimony should not be believed.

      “(His) demeanour on the (witness) stand came across as artificial and he was engaging in what I call virtue-seeking answers,” the judge said.

      “Some of the claims in his testimony were either improbable or absurd.”

      A doctor testified the child had injuries to her privates consistent with prior sexual assault, and Millar rejected suggestions that they may have been as a result of abuse at the hands of her maternal grandfather.

      Although the Saskatchewan man was convicted of sexually abusing one of his own daughters, there was no reliable evidence the grandfather abused the child, Millar said.

      The offender, who had been on bail, was taken into custody and his sentencing hearing will be set next month.


    • Sylvia says:

      And another one. This from the Regina Leader Post seems to geared toward comforting victims when they are waiting to testify, or when they do police interviews. Interesting.

      I can see where they would be a huge comfort for victims waiting to testify. Those hours are difficult.

      Police service dog provides comfort to victims of sexual abuse

      When Merlot arrived to work at the Regina Children’s Justice Centre in 2015 she was only one of seven facility dogs in Canada. Now, just two and a half years later there are 30 dogs working across the country and a two to three year waiting list to receive one.

      Regina Leader Post

      Published on: December 14, 2017 | Last Updated: December 14, 2017 8:39 AM CST

      Jennifer Ackerman

      Joe was nine years old when he was sexually abused, but it took 30 years for him to pursue charges.

      The passage of time wasn’t enough to dull his distress as he re-lived those moments in a Regina courtroom.

      “The testimony is really, really hard because they re-victimize you,” he says of his experience in taking the witness stand at a preliminary hearing two years ago.

      What made it even harder was knowing the accused — a neighbour and close family friend at the time of the abuse — was there with two very good lawyers. What made it easier was something unexpected.

      “I was in a room with about 12 people, and the dog just immediately came to me and jumped on me and started loving me,” says Joe, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “It was really comforting.”

      That dog was Merlot, a facility dog with the Regina Police Service (RPS). And despite being in a room full of people, she knew exactly who needed her support.

      Merlot sat with Joe while he waited outside the courtroom to testify. At times, her head rested on his lap.

      Minutes earlier he had been consumed with thoughts of the offence, what he was going to have to recount. He hadn’t slept the night before. In his words, he was “really, really, really messed up.”

      Merlot’s presence calmed him enough to go confidently into the courtroom.

      “It just changed everything,” he recalls.

      When Merlot arrived to work with the RPS in 2015, she was one of only seven facility dogs in Canada.

      Now, just 2 1/2 years later, 30 such dogs work across the country. There’s a two- to three-year waiting list to receive one.

      “It’s huge right now. It’s gaining momentum everywhere,” says Merlot’s handler Tia Froh, an RPS sergeant. “A lot of people are wishing Merlot could be everywhere.”

      Regina Police Service (RPS) Sgt. Tia Froh, with Merlot, a trauma dog with the RPS, in Regina. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post

      Facility dogs like Merlot are placed with community care professionals. The animal’s presence can help improve the physical, social or emotional wellbeing of individuals of all ages.

      Merlot and Froh work primarily out of the Regina Children’s Justice Centre, an integrated unit in which the RPS, health region and Crown prosecutor’s office respond to reports of child abuse. The dog and handler assist mainly with child victims of sexual assault, abuse or neglect.

      “The studies behind the dogs shows that when you’ve been a victim or witness of crime or trauma, you’re using all your energy to try to calm yourself down,” says Froh.

      The dog helps reduce the victim’s stress, which she says allows the person to relax more and as a result, give better statements. Merlot also sits with victims when they have to testify in court and, on occasion, works with adult victims, like Joe, and people with disabilities.

      “They’re at a very vulnerable state, and they’re talking about their most intimate experiences and very difficult times in their lives,” says Erica Schenk, a victim services responder at the justice centre. “To have someone like Merlot to ease that anxiety is huge.”

      By simply sitting with victims while they do their interviews or testify in court — and being subject to enough petting that, as Froh jokes, will make Merlot bald one day — victims facing difficult circumstances are provided with the unconditional support only an animal can give.

      Froh, a former investigator herself, conducts the initial interviews, which often require victims to recount the abuse they suffered. With Merlot by their side, that process is made at least a little easier.

      “My family wants to support me … but the thing is, it’s really embarrassing,” says Joe.

      Moving forward, he doesn’t want his family around when he has to talk about the details of the incident in court. He says having Merlot with him provides the support he needs, but can’t get from his family.

      Merlot began training at just eight weeks old with Pacific Assistance Dogs (PADS) in Burnaby, B.C. PADS breeds, raises and trains fully certified assistance dogs and is an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI).

      Regina Police Service facility dog Merlot when she was a puppy. Submitted by the Regina Police Service on Nov. 29, 2017. Submitted photo / Regina Police Service

      She learned basic obedience, manners and skills until she could do them reliably in high distraction environments. At 16 to 18 months old, she was evaluated for health and temperament and put through a variety of tests which determined her placement as a facility dog. Depending on the dog, they could alternatively be placed as an assistance or a hearing dog.

      By the end of training, the dogs have learned between 30 and 70 commands, including opening and closing doors and popular tricks like shaking a paw and bowing.

      Froh also underwent an extensive process to take on the role of Merlot’s handler. She had to submit a written application to PADS, do a phone interview and then — humorously similar to a dating website — wait for them to find a dog that was well suited to her own personality and lifestyle.

      After more than a year, she finally got the call she’d been waiting for and travelled to B.C. to meet the raven-furred Labrador retriever known as Merlot — a dog Froh says keeps pace with her “always on the go” way of life.

      Froh spent a week in B.C. training to become a handler, and Merlot, who was 2 1/2 years old by this time, was flown to Regina after completing her final training a couple weeks later.

      “We’ve spent pretty much every moment together since then,” says Froh.

      And that’s not an exaggeration as Froh recalls countless instances of going to the washroom at the university or work and having Merlot stick her nose curiously into the stall next to her, much to the surprise of other washroom visitors.

      It took Froh a while to get used to, but now the two are inseparable. She can’t imagine it any other way.

      “She takes on my stress. So if I’m having a bad day and she’s not listening, I have to check myself and realize it’s not the dog’s problem,” says Froh.

      Froh often practises commands with Merlot in the morning to keep her skills sharp. When it’s feeding time, Merlot isn’t allowed to eat until she hears the word “release.” Froh tests her, rattling off a sequence of ‘R’ words, but Merlot never waivers — only running to her bowl when she hears the correct word.

      As a rule, Merlot is not allowed on furniture unless she is working with a client. This applies at home too, except for the odd time when she isn’t feeling well.

      Merlot looks to Froh and only Froh for guidance. No matter where Froh goes, Merlot’s eyes follow, ready to do whatever is asked of her. When she’s wearing her work vest — complete with her very own RPS badge — she must follow all the rules she learned in training. This is particularly important when they are working in a high distraction environment or legal setting.

      This consistency, whether at work or at home, ensures Merlot can provide companionship without disruption during interviews at the justice centre or when she is sitting in court for hours at a time.

      “She’s working really hard to fight all those dog instincts. And so after court or an interview or whatever we may be doing, it’s important that she take her vest off and gets to run around and release like we do,” says Froh.

      Regina Police Service (RPS) Sgt. Tia Froh, with Merlot, a facility dog with the RPS, play frisbee while Merlot has her service dog harness off in Regina. Merlot is a regular dog when unharnessed, however when harnessed she takes a much more relaxing calm demeanour. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post

      When her vest is off for a well-deserved break, she bounces around like a puppy — sniffing, playing and begging for belly rubs. When Froh takes a vacation, so does Merlot.

      Merlot and Froh do a maximum of four interviews a day. They start by meeting the victim in the family room at the centre, where they have a chance to get to know Merlot and see a few of her tricks. Froh says they don’t talk about the case at this point. The idea is to put the victims at ease.

      “When people are coming to our centre, it’s not to talk about the best day of their life. They’re coming here to talk about intimate details,” says Froh. “So when they see a dog meeting them at the front door, you kind of forget a little bit about why you’re here.”

      She says victims — who are usually children — and their families immediately relax when they meet Merlot.

      Froh then offers the victim an opportunity to walk Merlot to the interview room.

      “It gives the kids a sense of control of the situation,” says Froh. “The majority of the situations that they’ve been placed in, they have no control over what’s happened and so it’s kind of a sense of power.”

      During the interview, victims often look at Merlot when they talk if they find it easier than speaking directly to Froh. On breaks, children are often heard telling Merlot, “I love you” or “good girl.”

      Having worked at the centre before and after Merlot’s recruitment, Schenk has seen the difference Merlot’s presence has made.

      “Kids are a lot more willing to have interviews done — enticing kids to come here in the first place,” says Schenk, whose social work background helps her support victims. “Having Merlot here is a huge positive, huge benefit.”

      Erica Schenk, victim services responder with Regina Children’s Justice Centre, sits in one of the interview play rooms for children with Merlot, a Regina Police Service, facility dog, in Regina. She is a backup handler of Merlot. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post

      She says Merlot helps put victims at ease and the quality of statements given due to her work has helped cases get to trial and, in some situations, result in convictions.

      Schenk recalls a case in which two young sisters, who were extremely anxious to speak in court, were able to testify well because of Merlot’s comforting presence. Their testimony saved two other witnesses from having to make statements in order for the case to go to trial.

      The younger sister spent her entire testimony gently rolling and unrolling Merlot’s ear.

      “When it gets to that meat and potatoes of the incident, the difficult details, if we’re in the courtroom and Merlot’s at the feet — you can see that the person is just petting,” says Froh.

      In another instance, Froh recalls Merlot comforting a five-year-old girl by licking the tears off her face.

      “She’s very aware of who needs her support,” says Schenk.

      And sometimes that isn’t even the victim. In some cases, when the child is doing OK, Merlot will instinctively snuggle up to a family member that she knows needs her support more.

      While the priority is doing interviews and going to court with children, Merlot can also go to the hospital to be with victims during a sexual assault exam or work with RPS members dealing with a critical incident, like an officer-involved shooting.

      However, studies show children benefit most from what facility dogs have to offer.

      “I have two daughters and if that ever happened to them I could just see … the benefit that Merlot would have,” says Joe.

      Froh says the children they see often carry around or display the Merlot trading cards or the miniature stuffed animal versions of Merlot some are given after their interviews — using them as a source of strength as they remember how she was there for them when they needed it most.

      “Everyone that can verbalize how Merlot has made them feel has said they can’t believe how much she helped,” says Froh.

      Merlot, a facility dog with the Regina Police Service, in Regina. TROY FLEECE / Regina Leader-Post

      The officer also spends a lot of time giving presentations about Merlot to groups like city council and is always working on developing best practices and future legislation surrounding facility dogs.

      She also makes a point of getting out in the community with Merlot, which she believes has gone a long way toward breaking down barriers between community members and police. Merlot even has her own Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts that are very popular.

      While she sometimes misses the work she used to do as an investigator, Froh says the pros of life and work with Merlot far outweigh the cons.

      “I like seeing the effect that she has on the people that we work with,” says Froh. “Knowing that somebody has to come here and talk about all these difficult things and that there’s at least something good.”

      For Joe, he has the comfort of knowing Merlot will be there for him when he returns to court later this year. This time, she will be able to sit with him in the witness box.

      “It means a lot,” he says. “It will definitely be comforting.”


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