VATICAN CITY — A lawyer representing Cardinal George Pell has asked Peter Saunders, a sexual-abuse survivor and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, to correct “false allegations” he has made against the cardinal and withdraw them.
The move is just the latest development in a strange dispute that has left Vatican officials confounded and unsure of what to do next. The cardinal’s position, however, is not thought to be at risk.
In a June 8 letter to Saunders, attorney Richard Leder said the strong criticisms Saunders made against the cardinal on the Australian Channel Nine program 60 Minutes last month were “either uninformed as to the relevant history or were deliberately selective.”
In his comments on the program, Saunders claimed the cardinal had a “catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, coldheartedness.” He said such “lack of care” was “almost sociopathic.”
“I think he is somebody who, understandably, victim survivors will have a huge, huge issue with,” he added. “In all the interviews, in all I’ve read, in all I’ve heard, I have seen not a shred of evidence that George Pell has any sympathy, empathy or any kind of understanding or concern for victims and survivors of these crimes.”
Leder wrote that the cardinal, who is prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, is concerned that Saunders had utilized the authority of the Pontifical Commission and the Holy See “in a wholly misleading manner.”
“This is confirmed by the many media reports that suggest you made the comments in an official capacity. The cardinal is concerned that you allowed this to occur,” the letter says.
“As you know, over the past two years, the cardinal has given evidence twice before the Royal Commission and once before the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry,” Leder continued, referencing governmental inquiries into clergy sexual-abuse allegations in Australia. “He has refuted on oath the various allegations which you chose to repeat on 60 Minutes. In the light of those appearances, your comments were either uninformed as to the relevant history or were deliberately selective.”
The letter says Saunders’ allegations “are objectively false.” It then highlights the “Melbourne Response,” which Cardinal Pell pioneered. The initiative has “provided compensation and made available ongoing counseling for hundreds of victims and their families,” the letter stated. “His compassion for victims is expressed in concrete, practical help — hardly the actions of one you choose to brand as ‘sociopathic.’”
Following the airing of the 60 Minutes program, Cardinal Pell’s office swiftly issued a statement June 1, saying Saunders’ “false and misleading” claims were “outrageous.” It pointed out that the cardinal “has never met” Saunders, who “seems to have formed his strong opinions without ever having spoken to His Eminence.”
In light of “all of the available material, including evidence from the cardinal under oath, there is no excuse for broadcasting incorrect and prejudicial material,” it said, and, therefore, the cardinal had “no alternative” but to consult his lawyers.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors did not respond to a Register request for comment.
In his June 8 letter to Saunders, Leder stated that the cardinal is “concerned that you knew, or should have known at the time, that each of those matters was factually wrong, and before speaking, you should have made proper inquiries to ensure your opinions were based on reliable information.”
“The cardinal invites you to correct the public record and withdraw these false allegations,” the letter concluded.
In June 9 comments to the Register, Saunders said he had received the lawyer’s letter and that, until he had taken legal advice and responded, he would decline to answer questions sent to him by the Register.
“Let us let the Royal Commission take its course,” said Saunders, founder of the United Kingdom’s National Association for People Abused in Childhood. “I am only interested in supporting the victims of these vile crimes and the protection of our children today.” He also said he is “deeply committed to Pope Francis’ initiative in setting up the pontifical commission.” But he added: “I stress again I was not speaking on behalf of the commission when I spoke to 60 Minutes.”
The Vatican has backed the cardinal, asserting his statement against the allegations was “worthy of respect and attention” and that Saunders’ words were “entirely personal” and not made on behalf of the commission. The pontifical commission itself stressed that it has “no jurisdiction” to comment on individual cases or inquiries and remains “dedicated to its mission.”
A group of Australian bishops have also emphasized Cardinal Pell’s record of leadership against clergy sex abuse following the critical news broadcast.
“He is a man of integrity who is committed to the truth and to helping others, particularly those who have been hurt or who are struggling,” seven bishops said of the cardinal in a June 3 statement.
At the center of the dispute are allegations, repeated by the 60 Minutes episode, that Cardinal Pell, then a parish priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, attempted to bribe David Ridsdale to keep quiet about the molestation he had suffered from his uncle, Gerald Ridsdale. The former priest is in prison for committing more than 130 offenses against children, some as young as 4, between the 1960s and 1980s.
Cardinal Pell vehemently denies the bribery claims, and Ridsdale has allegedly changed his story several times, at one time claiming then-Father Pell tried to bribe him and then saying he offered him nothing financial.
Despite the Royal Commission not being able to summon a person living overseas to testify, Cardinal Pell has nevertheless volunteered to fly back to Australia to give evidence about the case, even though he has already given much evidence under oath. He said in a statement he was “extremely sympathetic” to Ridsdale, was committed to complete cooperation with the commission and was “horrified once again” by survivors’ accounts of abuse.
The cardinal also said he would never have condoned or participated in any decision to move the priest in the knowledge he had abused children.
“The suicide of so many victims is an enormous tragedy,” he said. “The crimes committed against them by priests and brothers are profoundly evil and completely repugnant to me.”
Why Was the Cardinal Targeted?
The impromptu and highly contested allegations have led some to speculate other issues are in play in the attacks on the cardinal. For its part, the Australian 60 Minutes doubled down on its criticism of Cardinal Pell by airing a second episode June 7 that opened with a claim by journalist Tara Brown that “the Catholic Church in Australia stands in crisis” because “the men who lead it have put themselves on a collision course with the victims of child sexual abuse by expressing their unfailing support for George Pell.”
Andrew Rabel, an Australian Catholic journalist for Inside the Vatican and other journals, believes Saunders is being used as a tool and “possibly doesn’t realize it.”
Rabel pointed out that Cardinal Pell, then a young priest in Ballarat, was not as involved in parish life as many other diocesan clergy, as he was serving as rector of a Catholic teachers’ college and editor of the diocesan newspaper.
“He would have had as much knowledge of this issue as anyone else, which wasn’t much at all, in an era when subjects like priestly abuse were pretty much under wraps,” Rabel said.
He added that it is “unfair” there is so much attention on the cardinal when the real responsibility lies with the bishops of that time. He also blames the media, which, he said, is “not providing fair coverage of the situation and is incredibly biased.” They and the cardinal’s critics fail to give Pell even the “slightest credit for what he has done when compared to others,” he said.
Rabel said the cardinal has done “more than anyone else in Australia to lead a Catholic revival in the country,” and he stressed that, with the Melbourne Response, he was the first Australian bishop to pioneer the country’s first compensation scheme for abuse victims.
Knowing Saunders’ commitment for cracking down on molestation as a sexual-abuse survivor, Rabel blames the television show for taking advantage of that zeal, probably to boost ratings. He believes the show exploited Saunders both for its own ends and possibly also to further an agenda.
That agenda, he added, is likely related to the recent referendum in Ireland approving same-sex “marriage” and a strong push in Australia currently taking place on the same issue.
Some also speculate it is part of a ploy to discredit the cardinal, one of the most senior Vatican officials to firmly uphold traditional Catholic moral teaching, ahead of the next synod on the family this fall.
A Vatican source, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity, said the episode is a “massive embarrassment” to the pontifical commission and suggested that Saunders, like many who suffer sexual abuse, might sometimes “lose perspective” about abuse allegations.
The Vatican source believes that media critics have impugned the cardinal in an indirect attack on the Pope, possibly in an attempt to weaken the thrust of Curial reform.
But he stressed that Cardinal Pell’s standing with Pope Francis is “not in any way affected” by the accusations.
“If Saunders thinks he can drive a cardinal out of office, he must be dreaming,” he said, adding that the Pope knows very well what it is like to be the victim of a slur. “What would the cardinal be thrown out for? For something he allegedly said years ago and which he firmly denies?”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.