VATICAN CITY — Cardinal George Pell has received a “phenomenal” level of support as he began testifying this week via video link to an Australian enquiry into child sex abuse.
Abuse victims also welcomed his “conciliatory nature” after the first hearing Feb. 29, although they continue to criticize him for not calling for greater institutional accountability.
The Register has learned that the Australian prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy has received 5,000 letters of support from people all over the world.
Many of the messages are from people saying they are praying both for the cardinal and that his testimony will shed light on the truth that will help the Church and other institutions better handle clerical sex-abuse cases.
In the months leading up to this week’s hearing in front of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the cardinal was subjected to a vicious media campaign in Australia that portrayed him as guilty of covering up abuse in the Ballarat Diocese when he served as a priest there in the 1970s and 1980s — something he has always strenuously denied.
The Royal Commission is questioning the former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney on how much he knew about sexual abusers active in churches under his watch. Sources close to the cardinal say he is “well prepared, serene and simply wants to tell the truth.”
During the first day of hearings Feb. 29, via a video link to a hotel conference room in Rome (the cardinal volunteered to attend the hearing but was dispensed from testifying in Australia due to a heart condition), Cardinal Pell stressed that while the Church has made “enormous mistakes” in the handling of abuse cases, he had no role in covering them up.
“Let me just say this as an initial clarification,” he said. “I’m not here to defend the indefensible.”
He told the commission that the Church “has made enormous mistakes” in how it handled sex-abuse cases and is working to remedy them. He added that, in many places, and certainly in Australia, the Church “has mucked things up, has let people down.” The Church, he said, was more concerned with protecting its own reputation than helping victims of clergy abuse and had a “predisposition not to believe” children who made complaints.
He acknowledged that there is “a lot of truth” to accusations of senior officials seeking to cover it up, adding that such Church leaders were “unfortunately” not “necessarily few.” But he also said the Church in Australia has been implementing new procedures for many years and made much greater advances than many countries.
The cardinal himself pioneered an initiative to provide compensation and counseling for hundreds of victims and their families when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, although abuse survivors say it was insufficient and say it has been criticized by the Victorian state parliament as being damaging to survivors.
Advances in implementing new procedures are a “matter of record,” he said, and he explained that the failings “overwhelmingly have been more personal faults, personal failures,” rather than structural faults within the Church.
Despite having testified before the commission twice before on the same charges, Cardinal Pell was called to testify after claims surfaced last year. These include the accusation 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 age 4, between the 1960s and 1980s. Cardinal Pell has vehemently denied 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.
Cardinal Pell served as a priest and later as a consulter to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who oversaw the Ballarat Diocese 1971-1997. Now 85 and retired, Bishop Mulkearns is known to have moved Gerald Ridsdale for several years while being fully aware of the former priest’s abuses. Cardinal Pell himself lived with Ridsdale in a seminary in the early 1970s, but told the hearing that, at the time, he had been unaware of the priest’s crimes.
As a consulter, Cardinal Pell should have been informed about such crimes, but all his fellow consulters have testified to say they didn’t know as well because Bishop Mulkearns chose not to tell them.
Cardinal Pell said the way Bishop Mulkearns dealt with Ridsdale was “a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the Church.” Bishops Mulkearns, one of a number of bishops in the diocese, gave him “chance after chance after chance, shifted him around and, initially at least, trusted excessively in the possible benefits of psychological help,” Cardinal Pell said.
“If effective action had been taken earlier, an enormous amount of suffering would have been avoided,” he added, stating that while he is now aware of Ridsdale’s crimes, at the time they lived together, he was unaware of both the abuses and Bishop Mulkearns’ knowledge of them.
When questioned about the Vatican’s current stance in reporting child abuse, Cardinal Pell stressed that “the law of the land should be followed.” In a Feb. 28 statement released by his office, the cardinal emphasized his support for the commission’s work and said he would be available to meet with the abuse survivors who have come to Rome for the hearing.
He expressed his hope that the coming days “will eventually lead to healing for everyone” and said he had tied a yellow ribbon to the fence of the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes inside the Vatican Gardens as a sign of solidarity with the “Loud Fence” initiative, which was launched in Ballarat to support abuse survivors.
Victim Ridsdale told the Register Feb. 29 that the “conciliatory nature of the cardinal was an improvement,” and he appreciated that Cardinal Pell was “happy to be derisive of bishops” whom he had supported before.
But he said that the cardinal’s “attempt to suggest Vatican structure was still solid and that it was a problem with the grassroots is a problem.” He said Vatican directives of 1922 and 1962 “made it very clear that bishops were to move priests around, so in some cases, this is a global systemic scandal.” This means any solution “has to come from the top,” Ridsdale added, “and yet there’s still an attempt to try and blame the grassroots and move all the responsibility downstream.”
He added, “We need greater accountability from the top and need to start questioning canon law, rather than local laws: The law of the land is the most relevant, and we see a lot of parishes operating under canon law.”
The Feb. 29 hearing lasted four hours, beginning 10pm Rome time, and is expected to continue until Wednesday.
Campaign Against Cardinal Pell
The campaign in Australia against Cardinal Pell led to leaked reports last week that the cardinal was under investigation by Victoria state police over multiple child molestation allegations, to which he issued an immediate and vehement denial. The allegations were “scandalous and utterly false,” the cardinal said, and he requested an inquiry into the leak, which he said was “maliciously timed” to “cause damage to me as a witness” ahead of this week’s royal commission hearing.
A group of 15 abuse survivors and their family members traveled from Australia to Rome in order to be present for the hearing. They launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money to send them, so that Cardinal Pell would have the same sort of public hearing as he would have in Sydney.
But Ridsdale told the Register that abuse survivors’ goal is that, in “50 years, there will be no more survivors,” and “we want his help; we don’t want him crucified.” The cardinal “still seems to miss that,” Ridsdale said. “He puts out press releases to say he’s being attacked, but not by us. We have never attacked him. There are people out there attacking. When there’s noise in the court, it’s not us; it’s our supporters, and we tell them to shut up, because it’s not what we’re after. We want change, not destruction, and we think he could be our biggest ally.”
Ridsdale said he wanted the cardinal to “stop protecting the Church like it’s a brand and look after the people. … We want them to build a statue of him in Ballarat because he stood up for us and actually made changes. I don’t understand why he can’t hear that.”
Asked by reporters what he felt about Spotlight, a film about the clerical sex-abuse scandal in Boston, winning best picture at the Oscars last night, Ridsdale said he and other abuse survivors “danced as if we’d won the Oscar.” He said the “timing couldn’t have been better, and it has given us a lot of hope.”
Once its investigations are over, some believe the Royal Commission will propose a nationwide “redress scheme” that will look very similar to the “Melbourne Response” that Cardinal Pell set up in 1996, three months after he was appointed to the archdiocese.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.