.- Speaking to an Australian committee investigating institutional responses to child sex abuse cases, Cardinal George Pell has expressed his regret for failing to take more action against abusive priests in the 1970s and '80s.
One of the things Cardinal Pell has most lamented throughout the process is that he “should have done more” as a priest-advisor to his bishop, and as an auxiliary bishop.
He expressed regret “that I didn’t do more at that stage,” adding that “in retrospect I might have been a little more pushy” when issues came up and he didn’t seem to have all the facts.
On March 3 Cardinal Pell completed the fourth and final day of his hearing before Australia's Royal Commission, facing a six hour cross-examination by 11 legal counsels, including his own. The other counsels represented victims who had been abused by Catholic priests in both Ballarat and Melbourne in the 1970s and '80s.
He was confronted with evidence brought by the commission earlier in the hearing that as a priest in 1974, he had received information from a student at St. Patrick’s College in the Diocese of Ballarat that Br. Edward Dowlan, who taught at the school, was “misbehaving with boys.”
The cardinal said that the comment was not confided, but was “casually mentioned,” and that the student never asked him to do anything.
Although he went to the school’s chaplain about the incident shortly after, Cardinal Pell never followed up, since the chaplain told him the issue was being looked into and “I believed him.”
Cardinal Pell maintained that had “no idea” abuse was being covered up the way it was at the school, and that the accusation he could have stopped hundreds of other abuses had he been more vocal was a “vast overstatement” given the “meager evidence” he received, and which he never withheld.
However, “with the experience of 40 years later,” and after learning that Br. Dowlan’s transfer later that year was made to cover up his abuse, Cartinal Pell said he couldn’t dispute his own “comparative inaction,” and confessed that “certainly I would agree that I should have done more.”
He said the consciousness of his own personal responsibility and obligations in such situations grew as he continued through his priesthood, becoming an adviser to the Ballarat bishop, then later as both auxiliary bishop and Archbishop of Melbourne.
Cardinal Pell is now prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, which oversees Vatican finances, and is a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on reform of the Roman Curia.
March 3 marked his final appearance before Australia's Royal Commission regarding claims accusing the cardinal of moving “known pedophile” Gerald Ridsdale; of bribing David Ridsdale, a victim and nephew of the later-defrocked priest; and of ignoring a victim's complaints.
Established in 2013, the commission is dedicated to investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
Despite having testified before the commission twice before on the same charges, Cardinal Pell offered to testify again and was summoned to return to Australia for deposition in December. However, the cardinal’s doctor advised against the long flight due to health issues.
As a result, Cardinal Pell volunteered to appear by way of video conference from Rome, which took place Feb. 28 – March 3.
A group of 15 abuse survivors and their family members traveled from Australia to Rome in order to be present for the hearing.
The hearing largely focused on Cardinal Pell’s time as a priest in Ballarat and how the Melbourne archdiocese responded to abuse accusations, including during the time that the cardinal served as its auxiliary bishop.
Cardinal Pell was ordained a prest of the Diocese of Ballarat in 1966, later serving as a consulter to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who oversaw the diocese from 1971-1997. He was appointed auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1987, and was named its archbishop in 1996.
Cases touched on throughout the four-day hearing were those of Gerald Ridsdale; Fr. Paul David Ryan, who in 2006 was imprisoned for three charges of indecent assault; Fr. Bill Baker; Fr. Peter Searson; and on numerous accusations against members of the Christian Brothers who were teaching in Catholic schools at the time, including Br. Dowlan and Br. Leo Fitzgerald.
Pell began the hearing by stressing, “I'm not here to defend the indefensible,” and acknowledging that the Church “has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those.”
He stressed throughout the hearing that in each case he had acted in accordance with the expectations that came with his responsibilities, and that abuse cases in both Ballarat and Melbourne had been hidden from him by his superiors.
On the second day he maintained that though he had been an adviser to Bishop Mulkearns in the 1970s and was aware that Gerald Ridsdale had changed parishes more than was usual, the bishop had not told him the moves were made due to allegations of pedophilia.
Pell said the situation was similar as auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, and that while accusations of pedophilia had been made against Fr. Searson to the Catholic Education office in the diocese, neither the office nor Archbishop Little told him the allegations were of that nature when he was briefed.
“In both cases for some reason, they were covering up,” the cardinal said March 2, explaining that he was under the impression the accusations were related to other topics.
“People did not want the status quo to be disturbed,” he said, suggesting that one reason he was kept in the dark could be “because they would have feared that I would not accept the status quo.”
Cardinal Pell said he was “not cut from the same cloth,” and that as a bishop who was known for being outspoken, he would have gone against the expectation to cover up at the time.
With hindsight, he expressed regret “that I didn’t do more at that stage,” adding that “in retrospect I might have been a little more pushy” when issues came up and he didn’t seem to have all the facts.
On the last day of the hearing Cardinal Pell denied accusations that he had attempted to bribe David Ridsdale to stay quiet.
Ridsdale has alleged that when he phoned Pell, then auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, for help in 1993, Pell attempted to bribe him not to go to the police.
Cardinal Pell insisted that compensation never came up in the conversation but that David had confided that he had been abused by his uncle and wanted help from the Church.
He maintained that David asked for a “quiet process” within the Church, due to the stress a public investigation would place on his grandmother when she found out about her son Gerald Ridsdale’s crimes.
The cardinal said he was “eager to help” David in any way he needed and that the topic of financial difficulties arose, but wasn't discussed at length.
Cardinal Pell also said that after that initial phone call, David never called back. He said he made a few calls to David’s house to check on how he was doing, but that the youth never responded.
Cardinal Pell’s own lawyer spoke last, pointing out that when he was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, he pushed for the resignation of Fr. Peter Searson, about whom the archdiocese had received numerous complaints of abuse and violent behavior.
Cardinal Pell approached Searson with an official letter requesting his resignation, the lawyer said. Searson fought the request in a case that went all the way to Rome. Although Rome initially ruled in favor of Searson, Cardinal Pell said, “I just ignored the Roman decision, and Rome didn't push the point.”
He voiced his sorrow for the effect of clerical abuse on victims and their families, many of whom now have difficulty setting foot in either a Church or confessional.
“One of the things I regret as a Catholic priest is the damage that these crimes do to the faith of survivors, of the victims, and their friends and family, and generally throughout the society,” he said.
Before the hearing began, Cardinal Pell expressed his willingness to meet with the abuse survivors who traveled from Australia to be present at the hearing.
He met with them collectively on March 3 after the hearing had concluded, and drafted a joint statement with them condemning clerical abuse and promising to continue assisting the recovery process of victims in both Ballarat and Melbourne.
The survivors also requested a meeting with Pope Francis, though there has been no confirmation of a time.
Cardinal Pell met with the Pope on Monday, and arranged for him to receive a summary of the contents of each day’s hearing sessions. He is the highest ranking Vatican official to have testified before a legal body on clerical sex abuse.
Although the Royal Commission can’t bring any charges against the cardinal, they may give their opinion when presenting their findings to judicial bodies.