During the second session of testimony to an Australian commission into child sex abuse, Cardinal George Pell again reiterated that he had no knowledge of the abuse of the pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, nor of the role of Ridsdale’s bishop in covering up his crimes.

To a packed conference room in the Hotel Quirinale in central Rome late last night, the prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy repeatedly asserted, in response to a barrage of questions from the Royal Commission via video link inferring he must have known something about Ridsdale’s 130 abuses, that he had no such knowledge of them.

The cardinal served as a parish priest with Ridsdale in Ballarat diocese in the 1970s and 1980s, and was a consulter to the diocesan bishop, Ronald Mulkearns. The handling of the case by Mulkearns, now 85 and retired, was a “catastrophe” for victims and for the Church, Pell told the commission, and his silence was “a gross deception”.

At the first session, Feb. 29, Cardinal Pell said he was not attending the hearing “to defend the indefensible” and that the Church had “made enormous mistakes” in its handling of sex abuse cases. He recognized past mistakes, described institutional reform already in place, and advocated continuing with courageous improvement in the Church's response so that she can be an example for all institutions. 

But despite his frequent assertions that he knew nothing of the abuse, the lack of evidence he ever had such knowledge, that he knew nothing about why Ridsdale was being moved from parish to parish, and that Mulkearns’ knew about the abuse, the Royal Commission’s cross-examiners appeared convinced that he did.

Their line of reasoning, and the subtext to their questions, was either that the cardinal did know and was not admitting it because of Vatican directives that instructed prelates to cover up such cases for the good of the Church, or that he abrogated his responsibility in trying to find out.

The commission and the abuse survivors also attending the hearing view the young Father George Pell as a rising star at that time, an accomplished and allegedly ambitious priest (he’d studied in Rome and Oxford), and they find it hard to fathom how such a well connected priest could not have known, or at least inquired, why Ridsdale was being moved from parish to parish.

“He’s such a high achiever, he was identified early, he got the top job in Melbourne, in Sydney, and he’s connected,” abuse survivor Peter Blinkiron told the Register after the hearing. “He’s a good sportsman, he coached the footie side at my primary school, he coached the rowing, he worked the room. He knew how to get the most money coming in."

Blinkiron, like the other abuse survivors, believes Pell was adhering to Vatican directives “to evade, not to lie but not quite present the truth either, for the good of the Church.” For this reason, he feels that “getting him to admit to some of the serious felonies is like trying to pick up a grain of sand with a pitchfork.”

The abuse survivors believe this applies to all the bishops, not just Cardinal Pell, who have given evidence to the enquiry and further afield. “It goes from Boston to Ballarat,” said Blinkiron. “They all leave out the details, saying they can’t remember.” He accused the cardinal of “verbal athleticism” and said he and others refer to such perceived evasion as “‘selective Vatican memory” concerning issues that could “cause them to go to jail.”

If the cardinal is “guilty of anything,” Blinkiron added, “it’s in doing his job really well because it’s to protect the Church [regarding matters] which went against the law of the land.” It’s a “hierarchical problem that’s caused the same problems around the world,” he added.

But the cardinal’s supporters are angered by what they see as the injustice of a one-sided hearing in which the commission appears to be presuming Cardinal Pell guilty until proven innocent.

Certainly it was clear from the line of questioning that the commission’s chair, Peter McClellan, and the commission’s counsel, Gail Furness, had no clear idea of what information they wanted to ascertain, apart from trying to elicit a comment from Pell that he knew, or should have known, about Ridsdale’s abuses while serving as priest in the diocese.

One priest present at the hearing called the lack of logic in McClellan and Furness’ questioning “astonishing.” He also criticized how the two cross-examiners underlined how every priest should ensure the safety of children, but omitted to point out that it was the police who first alerted Bishop Mulkearns about Ridsdale’s abuses yet took insufficient action. “Why not interrogate the police and civic authorities as well?”

“It’s an entirely unjust, fishing expedition,” another priest at the hearing told the Register. “The cardinal hasn’t been charged with anything, has volunteered to appear before the commission, and yet is obliged to answer all the questions.”

He pointed out that the questions being put to the 74 year-old cardinal relate to events that happened 30 to 40 years ago, and that an apparent contradiction in what he says, which could happen easily due to fatigue (the hearings run until 2a.m.), could lead him to being charged.

“Unless there is evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to bear suspicion,” the priest said. “It’s the worst form of an inquisition.”

Some of the cardinal’s supporters believe financial motives may have a significant role to play in this hearing, noting that Furness probed the cardinal early on about his responsibilities as the Vatican’s treasurer, and the extent of his influence in the Church. Furness also implied that some of the dioceses most implicated do not have the resources needed to compensate the victims and that other bodies within the Church may need to step in to help. Some of the cardinal's allies believe she thereby insinuated that, since the cardinal has responsibility for Vatican financial affairs, he should redirect funds from the Vatican to the local dioceses.

Yesterday, Cardinal Pell met privately with Pope Francis who gave him his “full backing”.

He will face further questions from the Royal Commission tonight at 10p.m. Rome time. The proceedings can be watched here.

Full transcript of the March 1 hearing.

Full transcript of the February 29 hearing.