In Cardinal Pell’s Old Home, Sex-Abuse Legacy Leaves Melbourne Church Reeling

Though many local Catholics don’t hold the Australian cardinal primarily responsible for the wrongdoing there, his recent video testimony from Rome has refocused attention on the archdiocese’s painful past.

Cardinal George Pell meets with child sex abuse victims at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome on March 3, 2016.
Cardinal George Pell meets with child sex abuse victims at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome on March 3, 2016. (photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s Palm Sunday at St. Bede’s Church in Balwyn North and parishioners have filled the pews to the brim for late-morning Mass. It’s an impressive attendance for a church in a sleepy eastern suburb of Australia’s second city, less than a third of which identifies as Catholic.

Yet times are difficult for the Melbourne Archdiocese, from which have emerged some of the most shocking revelations of child sex abuse and its cover-up within the Church in Australia.

That painful history has reentered the public spotlight in recent weeks as Catholics and nonbelievers alike have questioned the role of the former archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal Pell has become the focal point of scrutiny into the Church in Australia’s handling of abuse with his recent testimony before a commission tasked with investigating institutional abuse. Survivors and media commentators have charged that the cardinal, who now manages the Holy See’s accounts in Rome as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, must have known about priests targeting children but failed to act, something the cardinal has stringently denied.

At St. Bede’s, which itself has been tarnished by sexual abuse, parishioners express a range of emotions when discussing their former archbishop.

“I’m disgusted by the whole thing,” Massgoer Jane Lentini said.

Others strike a more sympathetic tone when discussing Cardinal Pell, recently described by commentator Andrew Bolt as the “most hated man in Australia, if you believe the media.”

“I think it’s quite sad what has happened to George Pell,” says Josephine Campagna, a member of the parish for 35 years.

While she believes Cardinal Pell should have known better about abuse happening around him, she thinks he inherited a dire situation from his predecessor. Archbishop Frank Little, who died in 2008, moved known abusers between parishes.

“I think he was caught at the deep end,” Campagna says.

Another Massgoer, who only gives her first name, Lesley, worries about the tarnishing of good clergy.

“I know priests have done right by their faith and hope their reputation is preserved,” she says.

The Melbourne Archdiocese, the country’s largest by numbers of clergy, says that 59 priests (about 3% of all archdiocesan priests) abused children based on its own internal investigations.

One of those, Terrence Pidoto, who was convicted on 11 charges of sexual assault in 2007, worked at St. Bede’s during the 1970s.

That dark episode was thrust back into the media when the church was targeted in an arson attempt just a week before Palm Sunday. There have been arson attacks against more than half a dozen churches in the city during the last 13 months. At least four of the targeted churches have past links to predator priests, inviting speculation about retaliation against the church’s handling of abuse.


Cardinal Pell’s Testimony

Cardinal Pell hasn’t garnered attention only because of his roles heading the Church in Melbourne and, later, Sydney. Arguably of greater interest has been his time as a young priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, whose ordinary, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, admitted before he died on April 3 that he failed to halt what he referred to as a “problem with priests” during the 1970s.

In his final appearance by video link before the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on March 2, Cardinal Pell conceded he could have done more in response to rumored abuse in the small city about 60 miles from Melbourne. But he denied he had ignored or attempted to cover up known sexual abuse.

According to his testimony, he once relayed to a superior a student’s comment about a Christian Brother Edward Dowlan, “misbehaving with boys.” But rather than going to the police, his superiors in the diocese moved Dowlan between numerous schools, where he committed abuse against dozens of boys.

Cardinal Pell has also faced scrutiny over what he knew about the behavior of Gerald Ridsdale, often described as Australia’s worst sexual abuser, when they lived together for about 10 months in the early 1970s. Cardinal Pell insists he was unaware of abuse by the priest later convicted of offenses against 54 children, despite the knowledge of colleagues who moved him between parishes.

Before the Royal Commission, Cardinal Pell repeatedly attributed this ignorance to active deception by colleagues and superiors. While he attended a 1982 meeting to relocate Ridsdale to a different parish for a sixth time, he said Bishop Mulkearns  had concealed the reasons behind the move. Similarly, Cardinal Pell accused the Catholic Education Office of hiding evidence against another abuser, Father Peter Searson, about whom he received complaints in 1989, when he was auxiliary bishop of Melbourne.

Some abuse survivors have branded his claimed ignorance “unbelievable.” But following a March 3 meeting in Rome between Cardinal Pell and Australian abuse victims, child abuse survivor Phil Nagle praised Cardinal Pell’s commitment to assisting abuse survivors, commenting to reporters that “I think he gets it.”


Support for the Cardinal

In both Melbourne and Rome, the Church has stood by Cardinal Pell, who has vowed not to resign — a move he says would be an admission of guilt for misconduct that he did not commit. The cardinal was cleared of abusing an 11-year-old altar boy in a 2002 inquiry led by a former judge. Then in February, a media report claimed Cardinal Pell was again being investigated by police, to which the cardinal issued a statement denying any such wrongdoing.

In some quarters, the press has given considerable coverage to portray Cardinal Pell as the target of a witch hunt, in which his orthodox stances on marriage, abortion and embryonic stem-cell research have also been on trial.

Some Catholics believe Cardinal Pell actually deserves credit for his stance on sexual abuse by members of the clergy in his later career.

As archbishop of Melbourne, he established the “Melbourne Response,” the Australian Church’s first compensation scheme for victims of sexual abuse. Through the program, the archdiocese has paid more than 300 victims about $13 million for abuse dating back to 1950.

“I think perhaps that’s been lost a little bit in a lot of what has been said and done in more recent months and years through the Royal Commission and also through a parliamentary inquiry which occurred here [in Victoria] just a couple of years ago as well,” says Shane Healy, director of media and communications for the Melbourne Archdiocese.

Healy calls the scheme “ahead of its time,” although the Royal Commission has blamed it for discouraging claimants from going to the police and lacking independence.

Healy also believes it is difficult to judge Cardinal Pell’s response to decades-old events with the perceptions of today.

“We are sort of putting a 2016 lens on a series of situations that were occurring in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s,” says Healy. “I think that’s sort of impossible to do.”


Restoring Faith

What’s undeniable is that Melburnians’ relationship with the Church is a shadow of its former self, although Healy believes that’s because of societal change more than the fallout of child sex abuse.

Mirroring the situation across Australia, Mass attendance has plummeted to only about 13%. Nationally, almost three-quarters of Catholics went to Mass regularly in the 1950s.

When it comes to restoring faith in the Church, Healy heaps praise on current Archbishop Denis Hart for his leadership on the issue of abuse and the future of the church. He believes the biggest opportunity for healing will come when the Royal Commission delivers its eventual findings.

Said Healy, “But in the meantime it’s incumbent upon everyone in the Catholic Church led by the archbishop to be working toward a more satisfactory position in terms of a lot of what’s gone on in the past.”  

John Power writes from Melbourne, Australia.