Cardinal says he reported complaints, but did not know of sex abuse


SYDNEY (CNS) — For a third
consecutive day, a top Vatican official gave testimony to an Australian
commission about what he knew of the church’s reassignment of abusive priests.

The focus of Cardinal George
Pell’s testimony to Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual
Abuse March 2 was on Cardinal Pell’s time as auxiliary bishop of
Melbourne between 1987 and 1996 and the case of Father Peter Searson, the parish priest of Holy
Family School in Doveton.

In its three years of
investigations, the Royal Commission has heard stories about Searson ranging
from sexual harassment to rape of young boys. Australian police have voiced
frustration that parents were unwilling to press charges.

Cardinal Pell, prefect of the
Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, testified overnight via video link from
a Rome hotel for about five hours. He described Searson as a “disconcerting
man” who, at his worst moments, could be one of the most unpleasant
priests he had ever met.

Even prior to Cardinal Pell’s
arrival in Melbourne, there had been a litany of complaints made to then-Archbishop Frank Little about
Searson’s conduct. These included pointing a handgun at students and taking a
tape recorder into the confessional, as well as requiring female students to
either sit on his lap or kneel between his knees during confession.

There was also at least one
complaint of a sexual advance toward a female student, and the school principal
had resigned in order to raise attention to the conduct.

In earlier sessions, the commission
heard that after Cardinal Pell’s appointment as auxiliary bishop with
responsibility for the region, including Doveton, a delegation of concerned
teachers from the school went to see him. They gave him a “list of
grievances,” which included Searson’s unnecessary presence in the school bathrooms;
harassment of staff, parents and students; incidents of animal cruelty; and
showing the children a dead body in a coffin, all matters which Cardinal Pell
reported back to the archbishop.

Cardinal Pell told the commission
that he did not know of the earlier complaints about Searson or the suggestion
of sexual misconduct and was not told about them by Catholic Education Office
staff in a briefing prior to meeting with the teachers’ delegation. He agreed
that this amounted to a deception.

As they had done the previous
day, Gail Furness, senior counsel
assisting the commission, and Justice Peter McClellan, commission chair,
challenged the cardinal on this evidence, arguing that staff would have no
reason to keep the information from him if it had already been presented to the

Cardinal Pell responded by
saying that he differed greatly with Archbishop Little on his approach to
matters, so education staff could have been protecting Archbishop Little from
interference from his auxiliary bishop. Cardinal Pell said he also been
publicly critical of the archdiocesan approach to religious education, which
he surmised might have increased the education staff’s reluctance to deal with

Furness called Cardinal Pell’s testimony
“completely implausible” and challenged testimony he had given in
previous days that the bishop of Ballarat had kept information about offending
priest Gerald Ridsdale from him.

“It’s an extraordinary
position, Cardinal,” she said.

“Counsel, it was an
extraordinary world,” the cardinal replied, “a world of crimes and
cover-ups, and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed.”

Asked if he had put himself in
that world to disturb the status quo, Cardinal Pell replied that his record as archbishop
of Melbourne showed that he not only disturbed the status quo but turned it around.

The redress procedure he
introduced, he said, was light years ahead of others. Its 1996 introduction
predated by some years even reporting of the child sexual abuse scandal by
outlets such as The Boston Globe, whose 2002 expose of the abuse in that
diocese was the subject of the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”

Toward the end of the
questioning, McClellan noted that the commission could recommend changes to church
structure in its final report. He said the failures in management of abuse were
indicative of the need to implement a significant “middle management”
structure, such as those seen in corporations with hundreds of branch offices.

Cardinal Pell said a model that attempted to place an intermediary between a priest and his
bishop was not a Catholic one, and that other changes could be made without
having to abandon the traditional structures of the church.

McClellan told the cardinal that
the issue would be revisited at a subsequent hearing later in the year.

The cardinal’s March 3
testimony, expected to be the final day, was to begin at 9 p.m. in Rome March 2
and last six hours.

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