Police probe Pell bribe allegation

 

Australia's financial crime regulator has shared information with police about an alleged transfer of money from the Vatican to Australia to influence Cardinal George Pell's child sex abuse trial.

Cardinal Pell was in May acquitted of all charges by the High Court.

At a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells revealed she had written to AUSTRAC about the alleged transfer of 700,000 euros ($1.1 million) in Vatican funds to "person or persons in Australia".

AUSTRAC chief executive Nicole Rose told the hearing the matter had been investigated.

"I can confirm that AUSTRAC has looked into the matter. We have provided information to the Australian Federal Police and to Victoria Police," Ms Rose said.

AUSTRAC CEO Nicole Rose has spoken about the matter involving the transfer of funds from the Vatican. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage
AUSTRAC CEO Nicole Rose has spoken about the matter involving the transfer of funds from the Vatican. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage

Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo said he was not aware if his department had been contacted by Cardinal Pell's legal team about a probe.

"It would not in the ordinary course be something we would be approached about," Mr Pezzullo said, adding he would check.

The questioning follows Cardinal Pell's barrister calling for an international investigation into claims Cardinal Pell's bitter Vatican rival, Giovanni Angelo Becciu, authorised bribes for witnesses to give evidence against Cardinal Pell at the trial.

Robert Richter QC said the alleged $1.1 million money trail between Rome and Australia was there to be investigated.

The now demoted Cardinal Becciu has denied the allegations.

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said the original allegations against Cardinal Pell ‘first surfaced in the Italian media from Vatican sources’. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said the original allegations against Cardinal Pell ‘first surfaced in the Italian media from Vatican sources’. Picture: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Senator Fierravanti-Wells said the government would help if the matter went beyond the AFP and Victorian authorities.

"Given the recent demotion of senior Vatican figures … clearly from the Australian government's perspective we will co-operate with in any way shape or form we are asked to," she said.

PELL RETURNS TO MASS

It came as Pell held a public mass in Rome with an audience of dignitaries including former prime minister Tony Abbott.

It was the Australian Cardinal's first mass in Rome since leaving the Vatican in 2017 to face a child sexual abuse trial in Australia.

The service was held over the weekend in the chapel Domus Australia, near Porta Pia, to mark the 10th anniversary of the canonisation of Australia's first saint, Mother Mary MacKillop, The Australian reports.

Cardinal George Pell takes centre stage in Rome at the Domus Australia. Picture: Joseph Hamilton/ Twitter
Cardinal George Pell takes centre stage in Rome at the Domus Australia. Picture: Joseph Hamilton/ Twitter

It comes days after Pope Francis held a private audience with Cardinal Pell for the first time since he was jailed - and the acquitted - on child sex abuse charges.

Cardinal Pell returned to Rome last month after his acquittal, the Vatican said, without providing any further details.

But while a reunion between the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the man he once appointed as his trusted anti-corruption tsar had been expected, it was not clear that Pell is to be entrusted with a new Vatican role.

Senior officials said he had not been summoned back by Francis, but had returned on his own volition.

The meeting "went very well!" a chipper Pell said, according to Salvatore Cernuzio, the Stampa daily's Vaticanist.

The cardinal had been given extended leave in 2017 to return to Australia and clear his name of accusations he molested two choirboys in the 1990s.

Pell was convicted in December 2018 of sexually abusing the choirboys when he was the archbishop of Melbourne.

He strenuously denied the charges and the High Court in Australia overturned his conviction in April this year after hearing his second appeal.

The former Vatican treasurer had in the meantime spent more than a year in prison. His last face-to-face meeting with the pontiff was on June 27, 2017.

Pell, 79, returned to Rome on September 30.

The ex-economy Minister had told priest friends "he could not wait to look the pope in the eye," wrote Franca Giansoldati, Vaticanist for Italy's Messaggero daily.

"That obscure phrase hid the bitterness of a cardinal who had been unable to count - during that terrible time - on a word of comfort, of support, of friendship from the pope," she added.

Although he was supposed to observe a 14-day isolation period, the Australian "prince of the church" was photographed recently at a cafe terrace near the Vatican.

The cardinal is still facing a civil suit brought by the father of one choirboy who died in 2014.

Cardinal George Pell arriving at his Vatican apartment on September 30. Picture: Victor Sokolowicz
Cardinal George Pell arriving at his Vatican apartment on September 30. Picture: Victor Sokolowicz

A report released in May after a top-level Australian inquiry said Pell was aware of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Australia as far back as the 1970s and failed to seek the removal of accused priests.

His return came just a few days after a known Vatican rival was ousted. Influential Italian cardinal Angelo Becciu was forced to resign by the pope following accusations of embezzlement and nepotism.

It was not immediately clear whether the timing of Pell's return was significant, but the Australian had sent the pope a message congratulating him on ousting Becciu.

The Corriere della Sera, Italy's best-selling daily, said recently an investigation at the Vatican had unearthed suspect money transfers which allegedly pointed to Becciu being behind a plot to smear Pell.

It said that Becciu had transferred 700,000 euros to Australia to pay for witnesses against Pell - a charge Becciu has vehemently denied.

An anonymous witness in Australia also told local media the allegation was false.

Originally published as Police probe Pell bribe allegation


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