In March 2015 Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, testified before the commission for the third time after allegations resurfaced in 2014 claiming that he moved known pedophile Fr. Gerald Ridsdale, bribed a victim of the later-laicized priest, and failed to act on a victim's complaint. Before his appointment to the Secretariat for the Economy, Cardinal Bell had been Archbishop of Sydney
Despite having testified before the commission twice before on the same charges with no guilty verdict, Cardinal Pell voluntarily offered to testify again and, not being able to make the long flight to Australia, participated in the hearing via video-conference in Rome.
On Feb. 7, the Royal Commission will resume its public hearing on the current policies and procedures the Catholic Church in Australia has put into place regarding child protection and safety standards, including how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse.
During the hearing, Archbishop Fisher and others will be participating in a panel to discuss not only what went wrong with the Church's response in the past, but also what can be done better in the future.
In his statement, Archbishop Fisher noted that unlike previous hearings which focused primarily on individual cases, this one will address "the big picture" with the participation of "expert witnesses" alongside both Church leaders and lay people, some of whom hail from his own archdiocese.
The commission will now focus on two primary issues: the factors led to the all the abuse cases in the Church as well as the Church's failures to respond adequately, as well as what the Church has done and plans to do to address the problem, including by changing her programs, policies and structures.
Part of the discussion will also be dedicated to a better discernment of priestly and religious vocations, as well as the formation and supervision of those already in active ministry.
Archbishop Fisher noted that both "claims and alleged perpetrators" are referred to in the commission's report, and that no distinction is made between claims that have been proven and those that haven't. Neither does the report distinguish between claims substantiated by the Church in an internal investigation from those accepted by the Church without any investigation.
While statistics show that "the overwhelming majority" of sexual abuse took place in the 1950s-70s, and that abuse accusations have "declined very considerably" since, Archbishop Fisher said, "we are not complacent when it comes to child safety and to ensuring a child safe environment in the Church."
"We recognize our responsibility to ensure that all measures are in place to prevent this happening again. We also recognize that there are abuse victims who are yet to come forward and perhaps never will," he said, noting that to date, claims have been made against seven percent of priests ministering in the three dioceses of greater Sydney since 1950.
Archbishop Fisher noted that the coming weeks of the commission's final hearing on the Church's response "will be traumatic for everyone involved, especially the survivors."
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However, "confronting as it will be, I remain determined to do all we can to assist those who have been harmed by the Church and to work toward a culture of greater transparency, accountability and safety for all children."
The archbishop voiced his conviction that when "the humiliation and purgation through which we are presently passing" is over, the Church will be more humble and compassionate Church in the area of abuse.
Archbishop Fisher voiced his gratitude for the steps already taken and acknowledged the various parishes, schools and agencies working to make the Church "a safer place."
With media attention on the hearing expected to be high, with some reports "confronting," Archbishop Fisher welcomed those who feel "upset or demoralized" by the coverage to speak with their parish priest, and for priests to speak with their dean or bishop. He noted that counseling services will also be available for those who need it.
He urged anyone alleging abuse to contact the police, and asked for prayers "for all those involved in this hearing for wisdom and compassion. Above all, please pray for the survivors and their families at this most difficult time."
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.