David Marr: The left’s purveyor of calumny par excellence

David Marr’s Quarterly Essays on Tony Abbott and Cardinal George Pell have been among the most politically damaging of any writing that has come from the left. They have been damaging not because Marr mounts irresistible argument backed by unassailable evidence. No, they were damaging  because of Marr’s considerable talent as a writer  – a postmodernist writer with the creative power of a skilled novelist. Marr is a writer of ‘faction’ – fiction that is presented as fact. I make my case for Marr’s status as a postmodernist writer of ‘faction’ in chapter 13 of my just released ebook TONY ABBOTT AND THE TIMES OF REVOLUTION (paperback due February 2019).

Nobody has been more scathing of David Marr’s ‘political analysis’ than Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute. Below is his devastating critique in Media Watchdog No. 343 of Marr’s essay on Cardinal Pell. 


On 31 October 2016, the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released the submissions of Counsel-Assisting Gail Furness SC concerning Case Study 28 and Case Study 35. They turn on the Catholic diocese of Ballarat and the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne respectively. The timing of the release of Counsel-Assisting’s submissions to Royal Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan AM was made without consulting the lawyers of Cardinal George Pell who is mentioned in both submissions.

A fair-minded assessment of the Royal Commission would hold the view that Ms Furness was a hostile cross-examiner of Cardinal Pell and that Justice McClellan did not discourage this approach. The Royal Commission’s findings with respect to Case Study 28 and Case Study 38 are expected in the first half of 2017.

The evident hostility of Gail Furness QC towards George Pell provides useful criteria against which to judge David Marr’s very own hostile interpretation of Cardinal Pell. The reference is to the second edition of his monograph on George Pell. Namely, David Marr: The Prince – Faith, Abuse & George Pell (Black Inc, 2014). The fact is that much of David Marr’s case against Cardinal Pell collapses when reference is made to evidence heard by the Royal Commission and to Counsel-Assisting’s submissions to the Royal Commission.


The essential problem with David Marr’s The Prince turns on the author’s naivety. Put simply, when it comes to critics of George Pell – David Marr assumes that they have excellent memories and are completely rational. Also, David Marr believes virtually everything the police say – when it applies to Cardinal Pell, at least.

There are some 11 evident howlers in The Prince – with the possibility of more to come. Here they are. As avid readers will note, the howlers in David Marr’s The Prince turn on his naivety in believing what he wants to believe.

▪ Howler Number 1 – Page 8

David Marr writes:

…the pressure on the [Ted] Baillieu government [in Victoria] to hold an inquiry [into clerical child sexual abuse] became irresistible when the Age published a confidential report accusing the Catholic Church of protecting paedophiles and showing little sympathy for their victims. Victoria Police linked forty suicides in the state to abuse by half a dozen priests and brothers alone. Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson wrote: “It would appear that an investigation would uncover many more deaths are a consequence of clergy sexual abuse.” Baillieu was moderately brave. He announced not a royal commission but a parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations.

For a man with a self-proclaimed interest in human rights, David Marr has a surprising gullibility when it comes to accepting, at face value and without checking, police evidence. As John Ferguson reported in The Australian on 25 July 2015, Victoria Police has only been able to identify one confirmed suicide with church-related abuse. Leading Senior Constable Tania Siegemund provided the following critique of Sergeant Carson’s claim (which was endorsed uncritically by Marr) in an internal report dated 1 November 2012:

There are significant limitations to the data supplied by Detective Sergeant Carson, which have resulted in a significant number of the nominated premature deaths for review remaining unable to be verified, as the persons of interest are unidentifiable. These include the identifying particulars of individuals such as dates of birth, full names and addresses, details of alleged offences or offenders and years of alleged childhood sexual abuse. It was not possible to identify 18 of the 43 persons in the report, as per the data limitations and intelligence gaps discussed above.

Of course, one suicide related to clerical child sexual abuse is appalling. But the point here is that Victoria Police in 2012 grossly exaggerated the situation. And David Marr accepted Victoria Police’s claims without checking. In short, he did no independent research.

▪ Howler Number 2 – Pages 8-9

David Marr writes:

[George] Pell said he was willing to appear [at the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry]. As public hearings were about to begin in October 2013, Victoria Police attacked the Catholic Church again, this time accusing the Melbourne archdiocese of hindering investigations, protecting priests, silencing victims and failing to “proactively seek out” offenders. They also attacked the process Pell had put in place in Melbourne in the 1990s to inquire into abuse and compensate victims. [As Victoria Police’s submission to the Victoria Parliamentary Inquiry stated.]:

Victoria Police has serious concerns regarding the terms of this inquiry process and its appearance as a de facto substitute for criminal justice. As noted on its website, the Melbourne Response has made a number of ex-gratia payments to victims. In spite of this, it has not referred a single complaint to Victoria Police.

Once again, David Marr naively accepted – without checking Victoria Police’s claim – that under the Melbourne Response, which was set up by the (then) Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell in 1996, not a “single compliant” was referred to Victoria Police.

This statement was incorrect. As Peter O’Callaghan submitted to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry. [Note the punctuation has been altered to facilitate comprehension] :

Of the 304 relevant upheld complaints that have been made to 30 June 2012 (only two of which were made by complainants who were children at the time of their complaints):

(i) 97 [complaints] have been reported to the police (87 were reported prior to and 10 were reported subsequent to a complaint being made through the Melbourne Response). (ii) 115 [complaints] were made in respect of offenders who were already dead at the time of the complaint. (iii) 9 [complaints] were made in respect of offenders who resided overseas at the date of complaint. And (iv) 4 [complaints] were made in respect of offenders whom the complainant could not identify.

Of the remaining 79 complaints: First, 76 complainants were encouraged by me to go to the Police (and at least 25 of these complainants expressed some reluctance to do so). Second, there is no express encouragement to go to the Police located on the file of the remaining 3 complainants. However, one complainant was provided with the Melbourne Response brochure which contained an encouragement to go to the Police; one complainant had their complaint accepted without the need for a hearing; and one complainant made a complaint that was unlikely to constitute criminal assault.

Peter O’Callaghan QC’s submission rebutting Victoria Police’s evidence concerning the Melbourne Response has not been refuted by (now) Commissioner Graham Ashton or anyone else at Victoria Police. In its report, the Victoria Parliamentary Inquiry found that Peter O’Callaghan’s submission was essentially correct. The report stated:

Although Victoria Police directed these criticisms at the Catholic Church’s Melbourne Response, the Committee concluded they are equally applicable to other organisations that have adopted a similar approach. These approaches are discussed in Chapter 21 of Part F. We should note that many of the matters that Victoria Police raised before the Committee in justifying its criticism of the Melbourne Response come from a shift over the last few years in the police approach to investigating and collating information about historical sexual abuse complaints. Previously, if an offender had died or a victim could not give enough detail of an historical offence, police were unlikely to take the matter any further or have any use for the information provided by a victim. It is important to recognise that it was only relatively recently that Mr Peter O’Callaghan QC, the Catholic Church’s Independent Commissioner, became aware of Victoria Police concerns about the reporting of historical criminal abuse. As far as the Committee is aware, Victoria Police made no complaint to the Catholic Church about the absence of reports to them flowing from the Melbourne Response process, and made no request for a review of the Melbourne Response protocol in the period 1996–2009. Significantly, in materials that the Melbourne Archdiocese provided to the Committee, it is evident that Mr O’Callaghan QC and representatives of the Melbourne Archdiocese and Victoria Police had cordial relations and were working together on a protocol in 2009. There is no suggestion in these materials that Victoria Police did not enter into a protocol at that time (2009) on the basis that the Melbourne Response’s ‘processes were fundamentally flawed’. Rather, Victoria Police was no longer entering into formal protocols with any organisations.

In short, David Marr’s assertion that – under the Melbourne Response – no complaints were referred to Victoria Police is simply wrong. He naively accepted what Victoria Police said.

▪ Howler Number 3 – Pages 9-10

After repeating the Victoria Police allegation that the Archdiocese of Melbourne has not referred a single complaint to Victoria Police, David Marr continued:

This was damaging. That police in Victoria were no longer willing to protect the Catholic Church – as they had, vigorously, for a long time – was a key to the breakdown of old understanding across Australia that the church could be left to look after its own. Pell was affronted by this volte-face. He shrugged off calls for his resignation. Then in early November a disgruntled detective chief inspector from Newcastle, Peter Fox, turned on the church in New South Wales in an open letter to the [then NSW] premier, Barry O’Farrell. Peter Fox wrote:

I have investigated so many sexual assaults in my thirty-five years of policing I’ve lost count. Having spent most of those years at the coal face I have seen the worse society can dredge up, particularly the evil of paedophilia within the Catholic Church…. I can testify from my own experiences that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church. None of that stops at the Victorian border…the whole system needs to be exposed; the clergy covering up these crimes must be brought to justice and the network protecting paedophile priests dismantled. There should be no place for evil or its guardians to hide.

When Barry O’Farrell announced a modest inquiry into police work in the Newcastle region, there were frustrated cries from all sides for a royal commission….

At the time, Peter Fox became something of an ABC hero and received extremely soft interviews on Lateline by Tony Jones (8 November 2012) and Emma Alberici (12 November 2012) and also from Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast (15 November 2012). Peter Fox used the occasion (when talking to Emma Alberici and Fran Kelly) to criticise the Catholic Church in Australia in general and Cardinal Pell in particular (who he referred to as “Mr Pell”). The fact is that, when Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell had no responsibility for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

Following all this, the (then) Premier of New South Wales – Barry O’Farrell – set up a Special Commission of Inquiry into matters relating to the police investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. The special commissioner was Margaret Cunneen SC.

In her report, Ms Cunneen made the following finding concerning Peter Fox:

The Commission considers…that Fox has lost much of his capacity for objectivity about matters pertaining to the [Maitland-Newcastle] Diocese. In his report dated 25 November 2010, which he prepared for senior police, he described himself as “objective but passionate”. Although he undoubtedly remains passionate about child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church, he has lost much of his capacity to approach such matters with the detachment required of an investigating officer. The Commission’s report describes numerous instances reflecting this lack of objectivity – for example, his assertion of collusion in the police statements of certain church officials taken in 2003 (dealt with in Chapter 18). As noted in Chapter 20, this lack of objectivity in connection with matters involving the Diocese and related police investigations is such that, on matters of controversy, Fox’s evidence must be approached with caution.

So Margaret Cunneen SC listened to Peter Fox in person and expressed concern about his “lack of objectivity”. David Marr listened to/watched Peter Fox on the ABC and believed every criticism he made of Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church. That’s because Mr Marr believes what he wants to believe where Cardinal Pell is concerned.

▪ Howler Number 4 – Page 18

David Marr refers to George Pell’s shared accommodation with the pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale when he [Pell] returned to Ballarat from Europe in 1973:

When young Father George Pell moved his things into the presbytery in 1973, that corner of Ballarat was one of the most dangerous places in Australia for children. Already living in the presbytery was Father Gerald Ridsdale, chaplain at the little primary school standing on the other side of the church. He was raping the children. All four members of the staff, all Christian Brothers, were abusing the children in the school. They would not be exposed for twenty years. George Pell, back from his studies in Rome and Oxford, noticed nothing.

This is the familiar “I knew nothing” – or “he knew nothing” – smear directed at someone who allegedly is not telling the truth. David Marr was not aware at the time of writing The Prince that fellow journalist Paul Bongiorno (when a priest of the Ballarat diocese) also once shared accommodation with Ridsdale in Warrnambool.

On 21 May 2015, Paul Bongiorno told Fran Kelly on the ABC Radio National Breakfast program, in answer to a pre-arranged question on the morning that the Royal Commission’s hearings on the Catholic diocese of Ballarat commenced, about his previously unpublicised relationship with Ridsdale. Mr Bongiorno made the following point:

Paul Bongiorno: … I grew up in Ballarat. I went to Ballarat Catholic schools — St Patrick’s College and Drummond Street, run by the Christian Brothers. And I was inspired by what I heard and by the lives of men — both priests and brothers — by the ideals and the values that they had in terms of social justice and human welfare and well-being and belief in God, to go off and become a Catholic priest… I know Gerald Ridsdale. I lived in a presbytery with him in Warrnambool. I’ve had the victims approach me to appear for them in court cases. Let me tell you this Fran, I had no idea what he was up to. And when people look at me quizzically, I say: “Well look, let me tell you this. There are married men and women now who sleep with their husbands and wives who don’t know that their husband or wife is having an affair.” Let me tell you that Ridsdale never came into the presbytery in Warrnambool and said: “Guess how many boys I’ve raped today?” They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me…

Since Paul Bongiorno’s revelation, David Marr has not sneered that Bongiorno “noticed nothing” when he was associated with Ridsdale in Warrnambool. It seems that, once again, Marr has one standard for Pell – and another for Bongiorno and others.

▪ Page 34 – Howler Number 5

David Marr writes:

One afternoon in 1974, in the changing sheds of the town’s Eureka Stockade swimming pool, Green was talking to a few schoolfriends when Pell appeared and began to change into his bathers. Green had seen Pell often around the school and thought him a big figure at St Patrick’s. To this day he wonders where he found the courage to talk to the priest as he did. “I said, ‘You should really do something about what’s going on at St Pat’s.’ He asked, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Brother Dowlan is touching up the little boys.’ Pell replied, ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ and walked out.” Green is now putting his name to this episode. When the Age ran an account that did not name him in 2002, Pell replied: “At a distance of twenty-eight years, I have no recollection of any such conversation. If I was approached and thought the stories plausible, I would have informed the Christian Brothers. I do not remember hearing rumours about Dowlan at that stage, a man I hardly knew.”

It is true that Gail Furness SC has submitted to the Royal Commission that Tim Green’s testimony is plausible. It is also true that Tim Green told the Royal Commission that when the (alleged) conversation took place, he (Green) had his back to George Pell and did not notice when George Pell left the changing room. David Marr did not refer to this fact in The Prince – which suggests that he did not quiz Tim Green about the circumstances of the alleged conversation which took place over four decades ago.

▪ Howler Number 6 – Page 50

David Marr writes about (the then) Bishop Pell’s handling of the pedophile priest Peter Searson in the Melbourne parish of Doveton.

A delegation of teachers came to Pell to complain about Searson in 1989. Whatever Pell did behind the scenes, the priest remained in the parish and at the school.

According to evidence provided to the Royal Commission, the delegation of teachers which saw (then) Bishop Pell in 1989 complained about industrial relations at Searson’s school – not Searson’s offending against children. Yet the clear implication in Marr’s The Prince is that the delegation complained about Searson’s sexual offending. Once again, David Marr did not check what he accepted as facts.

▪ Howler Number 7 – Pages 61-62

David Marr supports the high-profile claim told by David Ridsdale (Gerald’s nephew) to 60 Minutes on a number of occasions that George Pell attempted to bribe him not to report Gerald Ridsdale’s offending against him to Victoria Police. This was a most serious allegation against Pell. This is how David Marr covered the matter:

So he [David Ridsdale] turned to Bishop Pell. Their families were friends. He [David] had grown up in Ballarat calling this man George. He thought of him as a powerful man in the church who could do something tactful and effective about his uncle. In early February 1993 he rang Pell in Mentone…

David Ridsdale was stunned by Pell’s response when he picked up the phone. “His reaction was so totally unexpected,” he would tell 60 Minutes a decade later. “He didn’t respond to anything I said. He sort of cut me off.” Pell seemed angry and somehow blaming his young caller for causing his distress. He remembers Pell saying: “David, you have a young family, you will have to make purchases like houses and cars.” David was confused. “All of a sudden I just stopped and went, ‘George, I’m totally lost. Can you please tell me what you were trying to say here?” He has never since wavered in his claim that Pell replied: “I want you to know what it will take to keep you quiet.” David was furious. “It changed everything,” he told 60 Minutes. “I said, ‘F-ck you and f-ck everything you stand for,’ and I hung up.” Then he rang the police.

He also spoke that day to his sisters [Patricia Ridsdale and Bernadette Lukaitis]. One, Bernie, remembered him saying Pell wanted to know what it would take “to make it go away.” Trish remembered her brother saying: “The bastard tried to offer me a bribe.” Pell does not deny offering David Ridsdale assistance of some kind, a gesture he believes was misunderstood.

In her submission to the Royal Commission, Counsel-Assisting Gail Furness submitted that there is insufficient evidence to support David Ridsdale’s account of his phone conversation with George Pell in 1993. As the Counsel-Assisting has written:

It is submitted that Mr Ridsdale’s evidence of his conversation with Bishop Pell is a true account of what he believed occurred during that conversation. The evidence of Ms Ridsdale and Mrs Lukaitis is however not direct evidence of Mr Ridsdale’s conversation with Bishop Pell.

Cardinal Pell gave evidence that in the conversation he offered Mr Ridsdale his assistance and expressed his desire to help. It is possible that when Bishop Pell spoke to Mr Ridsdale and offered his assistance, in a conversation in which Mr Ridsdale had spoken of his desire for a private process, Mr Ridsdale misinterpreted Bishop Pell’s offer of assistance.

Given Mr Ridsdale gave evidence that he expressed a desire to Bishop Pell for a private process, it is not likely that Bishop Pell would then have thought it necessary to offer Mr Ridsdale an inducement to prevent him from going to the police or public with his allegations. Cardinal Pell gave evidence that the time of his conversation with Mr Ridsdale, he was aware that police had spoken to [Gerald] Ridsdale in connection with child sexual abuse allegations, which makes this further unlikely.

For these reasons, it is submitted that the evidence is not sufficient to establish that in their telephone conversation in early February 1993, Bishop Pell sought to bribe Mr Ridsdale to prevent him from going to the police or from going public with allegations against his uncle.

Once again, David Marr simply accepted what David Ridsdale said – as if Mr Ridsdale is possessed of a perfect memory. This in spite of the fact that Justice Peter McClellan himself has previously warned of the “fallibility of memory”.

▪ Howler Number 8 – Page 77

At Page 8 David Marr has written that Victoria Police “attacked the process Pell had put in place in Melbourne in the 1990s to inquire into abuse and compensate victims” [i.e. the Melbourne Response]. However, on Page 77 David Marr writes:

When designing the Melbourne Response, Pell’s people negotiated a formula with Victoria Police which appeared in the brochure: “All complainants have a continuing and unfettered right to go to the police and the Independent Commissioner encourages them to do so if the conduct complained of may constitute criminal conduct.”

So, according to David Marr, Victoria Police in 2012 properly attacked the Melbourne Response. But at Page 77 Marr concedes that the Melbourne Response was set up in co-operation with Victoria Police. This contradiction is not explained in The Prince.

▪ Howler Number 9 – Page 105

Here David Marr writes about the relationship between John Howard and George Pell:

The two men had come to matter a great deal to each other. Pell’s oldest political loyalties were to the DLP, but when the party collapsed Santamaria had directed his followers to cross the bridge to the Liberals. It was not altogether comfortable for either party, so it mattered a great deal for Santamaria’s people when Howard reconciled with the old man at the very end. Pell was at the bedside as Santamaria lay dying.

This is absolute tosh. The anti-communist Catholic activist B.A. Santamaria never directed “his followers to cross the bridge to the Liberals” when the Democratic Labor Party was formally wound up in 1978. In fact, in the late 1970s and 1980s quite a few former DLP supporters joined the Labor Party. Santamaria was critical of the Coalition governments headed by Malcolm Fraser and John Howard. Moreover, Santamaria advised Tony Abbott not to seek pre-selection for a Liberal Party seat in the House of Representatives since he felt it was not worth joining the Liberal Party and that Liberals did not like such Catholics as Abbott and himself.

Howler Number 10 – Page 154

David Marr cites with approval the (then) Deputy Police Commissioner of Victoria Graham Ashton saying this to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry in October 2012:

If a stranger were to enter the grounds of a church and rape a child, then the rape would be immediately reported to the police and action expected. But if that stranger happened to be a member of the clergy such as a priest, the matter, under the current experience, would not be reported…I would not be doing my job today if I did not tell you that the overwhelming view of investigators from Victoria Police who deal with these matters on a daily basis is that it is the reputation of the church that creates that point of difference.

Once again, David Marr accepted at face value a police statement. In fact, there is no evidence in recent times of the rape of a child on Catholic Church property by a priest or brother in Victoria not being reported to Victoria Police. Once again, David Marr’s gullibility is revealed by his wish to accept – without questioning – Victoria Police’s view.

Howler Number 11 – Page 155

David Marr continued:

… Peter O’Callaghan would accuse police of giving a “false and misleading” picture of years of cooperation and of failing to give due weight to his own efforts to encourage victims to take their complaints to the authorities. But he could only show about ten of nearly 300 Melbourne victims went to the police after first approaching him. And only four of those seem to have done so with his “encouragement”. O’Callaghan would cite no occasion on which he took the initiative himself. Reporting the criminal behaviour of a priest was always left up to the victim.

Contrary to the implication in The Prince, there is no incompatibility between the two statements. In October 2012, Graham Ashton was referring to a contemporary crime – where the victim is a child. With respect to Peter O’Callaghan, David Marr was referring to historical cases where the victim of clerical child sexual abuse was once a child but now an adult.

▪ Howler Number 12 – Page 168

David Marr refers to Cardinal Pell’s appearance before the Royal Commission in Sydney in the following terms:

What he faced, and what the crowd had queued to see, was the strangest imaginable thing: a civil inquiry run by a Supreme Court judge into the state of a cardinal’s soul.

This is pure hyperbole. Justice Peter McClellan has no remit of any kind to enquire into the state of Cardinal Pell’s “soul” or that of anyone else. Indeed, it is not at all clear whether Peter McClellan believes in such an entity as a soul.

Howler Number 13 – Page 182

In his final chapter, David Marr’s writing indicates that he supports the following comment:

Those who admire him [Cardinal Pell] forgave him his testimony [at the Royal Commission], as they always will. But his testimony enraged many Catholics who had learnt to endure the man. That he was going [to Rome] tempered their rage. But there were many who echoed David Ridsdale’s verdict: “Pell is a power-hungry, ladder-climbing opportunist.”

What David Marr has never reported – in his writings in The Guardian or elsewhere – is that David Ridsdale is a convicted pedophile and that Gail Furness SC has submitted to the Royal Commission that there is insufficient evidence to support David Ridsdale’s claim that George Pell once tried to bribe him. Yet David Marr made much of this allegation in The Prince. The problem is that, due to his hostility to Cardinal Pell, David Marr is willing to accept, without checking, virtually any anti-Pell position. How naïve can you get?