CARDINAL George Pell has told the child abuse royal commission the Catholic Church made “enormous mistakes” and “let people down” in its handling of child sexual abuse by priests and religious.
Cardinal Pell, whose heart condition prevented him from returning to Australia for questioning, testified via videolink from a Rome hotel room, in front of a group of child sex abuse survivors who had travelled there from Ballarat.
Many of the survivors wore t-shirts emblazoned with the words “No More Silence”.
Giving evidence about Catholic abuse in Ballarat and Melbourne, Cardinal Pell said he was not there to “defend the indefensible”.
He denied knowing about paedophile priests operating in the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s, and then as an advisor to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns in the early 1980s.
He criticised Bishop Mulkearns for the way paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale was moved from parish to parish, saying it was a “catastrophe” for the victims and for the church.
Cardinal Pell said he had attended a meeting that discussed moving Ridsdale between parishes, but said he could not remember what reasons were given.
He said paedophilia was definitely not discussed at the meeting.
Ridsdale was convicted of a large number of child sexual abuse and indecent assault charges against 54 children aged as young as four years.
Cardinal Pell repeatedly denied to the royal commission that he had any knowledge of Ridsdale’s offences in the 1970s.
“I didn’t know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn’t,” he said.
“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
When asked by the commission’s counsel assisting why Ridsdale’s case was not of interest he replied: “The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret that, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evil that Ridsdale had perpetrated.”
The commission heard the then Bishop Mulkearns was aware of allegations against Ridsdale, as was another senior member of the diocese, in the 1970s.
Cardinal Pell said it was a “gross deception” that they did not inform him of the claims in his advisor role to the Diocese of Ballarat.
He told the commission that the first time Ridsdale’s offences came to his attention was when Ridsdale was jailed over his crimes in 1993.
In 1972, Cardinal Pell said he became aware of allegations Monisgnor John Day had been sexually abusing children.
But he was also aware Day had denied the allegations.
He admitted “in light of what we know now”, the fact that Day was appointed a parish priest in Timboon a year after his resignation was “quite unacceptable”.
In relation to allegations made against a number of Christian Brothers, Cardinal Pell conceded there appeared to be a “significant number” of people around Ballarat East who knew about the sexual offending of a number of Brothers during the 1970s.
When asked if the general attitude of the church was to not believe a child, he said it “certainly was much, much more difficult for the child to be believed then … the predisposition was not to believe”.
“Too many of them certainly were dismissed and sometimes they were dismissed in absolutely scandalous circumstances,” he said.
“At that stage, the instinct was more to protect the institution, the community of the church, from shame.”
Intense media coverage leading up to Cardinal Pell giving evidence ensured that his appearance via videolink from Rome’s Hotel Quirinale received maximum exposure.
It was broadcast live on television across Australia.
From Rome, David Ridsdale, who was abused by his uncle Gerald Ridsdale, said he was encouraged to hear Cardinal Pell use words like “catastrophe” and “scandal” in describing the abuse of children by priests.
But he said the Catholic Church needed to do more.
Another abuse survivor, Stephen Woods, sent these thoughts from Rome;
“There was so much media here in the room, so much interest by international media. There were huge numbers in the room.
“A lot of the survivors are frustrated, they want to hear Pell say that he really messed up. What we want to see is him being really candid.”
Cardinal Pell served in Ballarat between 1973 and 1984 where he was a Ballarat East priest, episcopal vicar for Education in the Ballarat diocese and an adviser to the Ballarat bishop.
He presided over St Alipius primary school where four Christian Brothers were paedophiles.
Cardinal Pell and another priest lived in a presbytery with pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale in 1973.
Cardinal Pell was Melbourne auxiliary bishop (1987-1996), responsible for a region including Doveton which had a succession of paedophile priests, and then Melbourne archbishop (1996-2001).
On the eve of giving evidence, Cardinal Pell visited a quiet area of the Vatican Gardens, a grotto where a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes stands, to pray for the survivors of sexual abuse, and to tie a yellow ribbon supporting the Loud Fence campaign in support of victims.
The Ballarat generated movement expresses support for victims of sexual abuse by tying colourful ribbons to fences has spread to cities across the world but this is its first step into the Catholic Church’s Rome headquarters.
“I am aware of the Loud Fence movement and how it has grown rapidly,” Cardinal Pell said in a statement from his office.
“This is my gesture of support, especially for the people of Ballarat.
“I think this is an entirely appropriate place to place a ribbon of support and prayed for all survivors of abuse here. I hope the coming days will eventually lead to healing for everyone.”
Cardinal Pell said although it may only appear a symbol, it is a sign of support and solidarity he hopes people will accept.
Ribbons of support have also appeared on the wooden barricades around St Peter’s Square, but his was the first within the Vatican walls.
Ironically similar ribbons were removed last week due to church policy from St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where Cardinal Pell was Archbishop in the 1990’s.
Ribbons were also removed from outside St Stephen’s Cathedral in Brisbane.
St Stephen’s Cathedral dean Fr David Pascoe said there was approval for the ribbons to be there, and he didn’t know why they had been removed.
He said if the ribbons returned they would be allowed to stay.
By Mark Bowling