On the first day of his video testimony to Australia's Royal Commission investigating institutional responses to child sex abuse cases, Cardinal George Pell said that while the Church has made “enormous mistakes” in the handling of abuse cases, he had no role in covering them up.
“Let me just say this as an initial clarification: I'm not here to defend the indefensible,” Cardinal Pell said during the hearing.
The Church “has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those,” he admitted, adding that in many places, and certainly in Australia, the Church “has mucked things up, has let people down.”
However, he also recognized that “there are very few countries in the world who have advanced as far as the Catholic Church has in Australia in putting procedures into place nearly 20 years ago.”
Cardinal Pell is a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis and a past archbishop of the Sydney and Melbourne archdioceses. He is also the prefect of the newly formed Secretariat for the Economy which is overseeing Vatican finances.
He is currently testifying before Australia's Royal Commission regarding claims that surfaced last year accusing the cardinal of moving “known pedophile” Gerald Ridsdale, of bribing a victim of the later-defrocked priest, and of ignoring a victim’s complaint.
Established in 2013, the Royal Commission is dedicated to investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
Despite having testified before the commission twice before on the same charges, Pell was again 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. His proposal for the video conference was accepted.
The cardinal’s third hearing began with a four-hour session at 8 a.m. Feb. 29 local time in Sydney, 10 p.m. Feb. 28 in Rome, where he is giving his testimony from the Verdi Room of the city’s Hotel Quirinale. The hearing is expected to last through Wednesday.
A group of 15 abuse survivors and their family members traveled from Australia to Rome in order to be present for the hearing. They launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money to send them, so that Cardinal Pell would have the same sort of public hearing as he would have in Sydney.
The hearing largely focuses 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 auxiliary bishop.
Cardinal Pell was ordained in the diocese of Ballarat in 1966, where he served as a priest and later as a consulter to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who oversaw the diocese from 1971-1997. Pell was appointed auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese of Melbourne in 1987, and was named archbishop in 1996.
Gail Furness, the lead counsel assisting the commission, questioned Pell about the Vatican’s current efforts to address the scandal of child abuse, and about how he dealt with abuse allegations in his role as educator and adviser to Bishop Mulkearns.
Now 85, the retired Mulkearns is known to have moved Gerald Ridsdale, one of Australia’s most notorious abusers, between parishes for several years while being fully aware of the former-priest’s abuses. Ridsdale is known to have committed more than 130 offenses while chaplain at Ballarat’s St. Alipius school in the 1960s-1980s.
Pell himself lived with Ridsdale in a seminary in the early 1970s, but stressed that at the time, he had been unaware of the priest’s crimes.
He voiced his criticism for the way Bishop Mulkearns had dealt with Ridsdale, saying it was “a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the Church.”
Mulkearns, he said, “shifted” Ridsdale and gave him “chance after chance after chance, shifted him around, and, initially at least, trusted excessively in the possible benefits of psychological help.”
“If effective action had been taken earlier, an enormous amount of suffering would have been avoided," Cardinal Pell said, and admitted that while he is now aware of Ridsdale's crimes, at the time they lived together he was unaware of both the abuses and Bishop Mulkearns' knowledge of them.
In addition to Risdale, other cases Cardinal Pell was questioned on were those of Fr. Paul David Ryan, who in 2006 was imprisoned for three charges of indecent assault, and on numerous accusations against members of the Christian Brothers who were teaching in Catholic schools at the time.
Pell recognized that there had been “a pattern” of moving known pedophile priests, including Ryan and Ridsdale, under Mulkearns, and said the bishop would be a good candidate for the Vatican's new tribunal in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In June 2015, Pope Francis approved of the establishment of a special tribunal within the congregation to specifically judge bishops accused of protecting priests that had sexually abused children.
When questioned about the Vatican’s current stance in terms of reporting child abuse, Cardinal Pell stressed that “the law of the land should be followed.”
In a Feb. 28 statement released by his office, the cardinal emphasized his support for the commission’s work, and said he would be available to meet with the abuse survivors who have come to Rome for the hearing.
He expressed his hope that the coming days “will eventually lead to healing for everyone,” and said he had tied a yellow ribbon to the fence of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes inside the Vatican Gardens as a sign of solidarity with the “Loud Fence” initiative, which was launched in Ballarat to support abuse survivors.