A series of mysterious adverts are encouraging supporters to donate to a “trust fund” to help Cardinal George Pell pay for a top legal team to fight the abuse allegations against him.
Bank details of the fund, run by a Melbourne-based solicitor, are included in the adverts which have appeared in Catholic newsletters, magazines and websites around the world.
Mystery still surrounds who sent the adverts – which all share similar wording – and whether they were part of a co-ordinated campaign.
One of the adverts posted on the website of the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat says the bank account details were “provided by Cardinal Pell’s staff at the Sydney Archdiocese”.
All of the adverts go on to say that funds can be deposited into a Bendigo Bank account run by Ferdinand Zito and Associates, a law firm with a small office next to a post office in suburban Melbourne.
A spokeswoman for the law firm confirmed they were running the fund, but due to client confidentiality with the Cardinal they would not answer any questions.
The revelation comes after a magistrate at Melbourne Magistrates Court ruled last week that Cardinal Pell’s case would proceed to a higher court, despite dropping half the charges against him, including ones more serious in nature.
In a statement after the verdict, Cardinal Pell, through his lawyers, thanked “all those who have supported him from both here in Australia and overseas” and said he was “grateful for their continuing support and prayers”.
The former archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney, on leave from his post as Vatican treasurer and currently living in a Sydney seminary, will now face two trials by jury for multiple allegations of historic sexual abuse.
A spokeswoman for the Cardinal, Katrina Lee, the Executive Advisor for the Archdiocese of Sydney, confirmed officially for the first time that the Vatican was not contributing to the legal fund.
“Since Cardinal Pell’s return to Australia many people have asked how they could assist with his legal costs,” she said.
“An independent solicitor’s trust fund was set up for this purpose. Not set-up by or overseen by the Archdiocese.
“The Archdiocese has not contributed to this fund nor has the Vatican provided any funding.”
If anyone has asked for the fund details, the Archdiocese has passed them on, Ms Lee said.
Cardinal Pell, who strongly denies all the allegations against him, has chosen one of Australia’s most feared and respected criminal barristers to help him clear his name.
Robert Richter, 72, charges a rumoured fee of $16,000 per day for his services.
But the total daily bill for Cardinal Pell’s team as a whole could easily sit around $30,000 per day with fees for the work of lawyers and clerks from law firm Galbally & O’Bryan plus a second criminal barrister, Ruth Shann.
Ingrid Irwin, a lawyer from Ballarat who previously represented two of the accusers in the case against Cardinal Pell – one of whom passed away in January this year – revealed she had received a payment recently from Mr Zito owing from the Cardinal.
It related to work she had carried out as a result of a court order from Cardinal Pell’s legal team.
She said it was unfair the Cardinal was able to raise funds from supporters to pay for top legal counsel while the accusers were denied their own lawyers during the process.
“It’s hugely unfair,” Ms Irwin told The New Daily.
“And I wonder whether the Catholic Church is indeed paying for this legal fight but through a different channel via this fund which is less controversial for them.”
Des Cahill, an emeritus professor at RMIT University in Melbourne who studied at the same seminary as Cardinal Pell as a trainee Catholic priest, said he believed donations from supporters would be enough to cover the legal fees, which could total millions of dollars.
“He has constantly expressed his innocence and is well liked by many conservative Catholics for what he stands for and what he represents,” Dr Cahill told The New Daily.
On May 16 Cardinal Pell will return for a hearing at the County Court of Victoria when dates of the two trials are expected to be confirmed.