CARDINAL George Pell of Sydney said he was “fully apologetic and absolutely sorry” when questioned at the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into institutional child sex abuse.
“I’m certainly totally committed to improving the situation. I know the Holy Father is too,” he told the inquiry last Monday.
He said the problem existed on two levels – the grim list of abuses and secondly how the Church dealt with them.
Cardinal Pell acknowledged the Catholic Church within Australia covered up the “foul crime” of child abuse and this had led to suicides.
Other points he made during his testimony included that the problem did not lie in Church structure but inactivity or poor judgements of some bishops in the area of sexual abuse.
He rejected claims that there had been a “culture of abuse” among priests.
“I think the bigger fault was nobody would talk about it, nobody would mention it,” he said.
Cardinal Pell conceded there was evidence to show that then Archbishop of Melbourne Francis Little and Bishop of Ballarat Ronald Mulkearns had covered-up sex abuse matters.
“I think many persons in the leadership of the Church, I don’t think they knew what a horrendous widespread [issue] we were sitting on,” he said.
The cardinal relayed an assurance from a senior Vatican official that any Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith documents in Rome related and pertinent to Australian abuse cases would be made available to the McClellan Royal Commission.
Cardinal Pell’s comments came during about four-and-a-half hours of questioning by the Victorian parliamentary commission.
He was the final witness in the inquiry which examined how religious and non-government organisations had responded to sexual abuse claims.
The inquiry’s head commissioner opened with a statement that criminal sexual abuse happened under the Catholic Church and it was covered up.
The commissioner said “this was acknowledged by your successor Archbishop Hart”.
The commissioner also asked why there was so much abuse in the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Pell said much research on the matter had been done in the United States.
Factors included the “enormous number of children” dealt with in the Church’s school system.
Cardinal Pell conceded the celibacy of the clergy might also be a factor.
“But as most reported paedophilia happens outside of institutions and within families, marriage is obviously no impediment to the crime,” he said.
He also said the inquiry of the fitness of candidates for the priesthood in the middle of the last century was too loose.
The commissioner also asked whether the Church’s primary motivation was to protect its reputation and money.
Cardinal Pell said the “fear of scandal” led to a cover-up.
“The primary motivation would have been to respect the reputation of the Church,” he said.
However, he said the Church always accepted its obligations to victims.
“Church officials can be sued. Church officials have been sued,” he said.
“We are always ready to pay whatever the law of the land says about compensation.”
Cardinal Pell said Australian compensation – a maximum of $75,000 – was low compared to the US but compared quite favourably with the vast majority of the world.
Among other topics raised by commissioners were the reasons for the establishment of a special issues committee in Melbourne archdiocese in 1988, the lack of response of Church officials to specific cases of clergy abuse of children and of the follow-up system of checks and balances currently in place and whether they were being followed.
To the latter question, Cardinal Pell said he was relying on all the other Church officials, other priests and, on occasion, parents.
He said nobody was complaining to him that the system was not being monitored and the level of crime being reported was very low.
One of the commissioners concluded with a plea to Cardinal Pell to read through all Victorian Commission documents and victim statements, and to carry that knowledge with him to Rome when he advised the Pope on the reform of the Church in late 2013.
Cardinal Pell said he was committed to improving the situation and that the Holy Father was too.