CARDINAL George Pell says he is “surprised” by critical findings of the child abuse royal commission, claiming they are “not supported by evidence”.
He was surprised by the statements in the report about the earlier transfers of Gerald Ridsdale discussed by the Ballarat Diocesan consultors in 1977 and 1982.
“The Consultors who gave evidence on the meetings in 1977 and 1982 either said they did not learn of Ridsdale’s offending against children until much later or they had no recollection of what was discussed. None said they were made aware of Ridsdale’s offending at these meetings,” a statement from Cardinal Pell said.
The then Fr Pell left the Diocese of Ballarat and his position as a consultor at the end of 1984.
As an Auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne 1987-96, the then Bishop Pell met with a delegation from Doveton Parish in 1989, which did not mention sexual assaults and did not ask for Searson’s removal.
Appointed Archbishop of Melbourne on August 16, 1996, Archbishop Pell placed Fr Searson on administrative leave in March 1997 and removed him from the parish on May 15, 1997.
CARDINAL George Pell was aware of Catholic Church child abuse as early as the 1970s – and “considered measures of avoiding situations that might provoke gossip” – according to the child abuse royal commission.
About 100 pages of previously redacted findings from the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, dealing with Cardinal Pell’s handling of child sexual abuse claims were released in the Federal Parliament today.
Cardinal Pell, a former archbishop of Sydney and Melbourne and the Vatican treasurer, gave evidence to the Commission in Sydney in 2014, and again in Rome in 2016.
The unredacted report reveals that child sexual abuse by priests was on Cardinal Pell’s “radar” in 1973 and that it “ought to have been obvious” to him during the late 1980s that abuse was being carried out.
In the 1970s Cardinal Pell, then a junior priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, was aware of children being sexually abused within that diocese, and it was “implausible” that other senior church figures did not tell the then Fr Pell abuse was occurring.
The report shows the commission rejected Cardinal Pell’s evidence that he had been deceived and lied to by Church officials about Gerald Ridsdale – considered to be one of the country’s worst offending paedophile priests – and Melbourne parish priest Peter Searson.
“We are satisfied that in 1973, Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps,” the report said.
“The most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child, then they could sexually abuse a child, or at least provoke gossip about such a prospect.”
Ridsdale was convicted of abusing more than 60 boys over decades.
The report said the royal commission was satisfied that Cardinal Pell, as an adviser to then Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns, knew of Ridsdale’s abuse, and that was why Ridsdale was moved from the Victorian town of Mortlake, in the 1980s.
“We are satisfied Bishop Mulkearns gave reasons for it being necessary to move Ridsdale. We are satisfied that he referred to homosexuality at the meeting, in the context of giving reasons for Ridsdale’s move,” it said.
“However, we are not satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns left the explanation there, as Cardinal Pell said there would have been a discussion.
“Cardinal Pell gave evidence that the bishop did not give the true reason for moving Ridsdale – namely his sexual activity with children – and that the bishop lied in not giving the true reason to the consulters.
“We do not accept that Bishop Mulkearns lied to his consultors.”
In the unredacted report, the royal commission found that later, in the 1980s when Cardinal Pell was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, he should have advocated for Fr Searson to be removed.
Fr Searson died in 2009 without facing charges, but the commission heard he abused children in parishes and schools across three districts over more than a decade.
A portion of the unredacted report reads: “Then-Bishop Pell ought to have removed or suspended Peter Searson after complaints were made about sexual misconduct with children.”
The complaints came from a delegate of teachers who met with Bishop Pell in 1989 and told him about the allegations raised against Fr Searson.
“We found that these matters in combination with the prior allegation of sexual misconduct ought to have indicated to Bishop Pell that Fr Searson needed to be stood down,” the report said.
“It was incumbent upon Bishop Pell as an auxiliary bishop with the responsibility for the welfare of the children in the Catholic community of this region to take such action as he could to advocate that Fr Searson be removed or suspended or at least a thorough investigation be undertaken of the allegations.
“It was the same responsibility attached to other auxiliary bishops and the vicar general when they received complaints.
“On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989 we found that he ought to have been obvious to him at the time.
“We found that he should have advised the Archbishop to remove Fr Searson and he did not do so.”
The findings made by the Royal in December 2017 were redacted in order to avoid prejudicing the trial of Cardinal Pell, who was then charged with child sexual abuse.
Cardinal Pell was convicted in February 2019 and then acquitted last month.
This allowed the release of the redacted sections of the royal commission’s reports.