Cardinal George Pell and a dozen survivors of clerical sex abuse met in Rome on Thursday, where they shared an emotional encounter and drafted a joint statement committing to work toward peace and healing.
“I just met with about a dozen of the Ballarat survivors, support people and officials and heard each of their stories and of their sufferings. It was hard; an honest and occasionally emotional meeting,” Cardinal Pell, who is prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy, said in the March 3 statement.
Cardinal Pell read the statement aloud to reporters outside Rome’s Hotel Quirinale, where for the past four days he has been giving his testimony before Australia's Royal Commission investigating institutional responses to child sex abuse cases.
He assured his commitment to working with members of the survivors group, many of whose families he knows from his time as a priest in Ballarat, a city in Australia's state of Victoria.
“I know the goodness of so many people in Catholic Bellarat; a goodness which is not extinguished by the evil that was done.”
It is everyone’s desire to make things better on the ground, he said, and promised his personal commitment in helping the survivors to work effectively with the various agencies in Rome dedicated to fighting clerical sexual abuse, particularly the recently-established Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
At the hearing the cardinal testified on claims which resurfaced last year accusing him of transferring notorious abuser Gerald Ridsdale; of attempting to bribe David Ridsdale, a victim and nephew of the later-defrocked priest; and of failing to act on victims’ complaints.
Despite having testified before the commission twice before on the same charges, 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.
David Ridsdale was present in Rome for the cardinal’s hearing alongside 14 other abuse survivors from Australia and their families, who launched a crowdfunding campaign in order 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.
Cardinal Pell arranged for the group to meet with Fr. Hans Zollner, SJ, president of the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, after the hearing finished.
After talking to Fr. Zollner, the survivors returned to Hotel Quirinale for their meeting with Cardinal Pell.
In comments to the media after the encounter, David Ridsdale described it as “extremely emotional,” but was happy they were able to meet “on a level playing field; we met as people from Bellarat.”
Cardinal Pell was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Ballarat in 1966, where many of the abuse survivors in Rome are from and where he served as a priest and later as a consulter to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who oversaw the diocese from 1971-1997.
Among the many survivors present were Anthony and Chrissie Foster, the parents of two clerical abuse victims. After two of the Fosters’ three daughters were abused by Fr. Kevin O’Donnell, one committed suicide, while the other became an alcoholic and was struck by a car while intoxicated, leaving her severely disabled. Suicide has been common among victims of clerical sex abuse in Ballarat, and is something both Cardinal Pell and the survivors spoke out against in their statement.
“One suicide is too many. There have been many such tragic suicides,” Cardinal Pell said while reading it aloud.
He committed to working with the survivor group to try to stop suicides after abuse, and to make it so that “suicide is not seen as an option for those who are suffering.”
Despite the vast distance between Rome and Ballarat, the cardinal said he wants to continue contributing to making the city a model and a place of healing and peace.
He voiced his support to begin investigating the feasibility of creating a research center dedicated to enhancing the healing of abuse survivors and to improving the protection of youth, and expressed his faith in the loyalty and charity of the church-going community in Ballarat.
“I urge them to continue to cooperate with the survivors to improve the situation,” he said, and noted how much he owes on a personal level to the Ballarat community. “It would be marvelous if our city became well-known as an effective center and the example of practical help for all those wounded by the scourge of sexual abuse,” he said.