Cardinal tells Australian abuse hearing he won't defend indefensible

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Gray, Reuters


SYDNEY (CNS) — The Vatican’s prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, Cardinal George Pell, told a
special hearing of Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to
Child Sexual Abuse that he was not trying “to defend the indefensible.”

Commencing the morning of Feb.
29 — 10 p.m. Feb. 28 in Rome — Cardinal Pell gave evidence at a special
session convened in Rome’s Hotel Quirinale via video link to the Commission in
Australia, from where he was questioned for four hours by Gail Furness, senior counsel
assisting the commission.

“The church has made
enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those,” he said. “The church
in many places, including Australia, has mucked things up and let people down,
and I’m not here to defend the indefensible.”

A heart condition prevented the cardinal
from making the flight back to Sydney for the hearing, with the commissioners
agreeing to his request to give evidence via video link.

The Royal Commission also ruled
that Australian survivors of abuse, their supporters and media from Australia
would be permitted to be in the room while the cardinal testified, and the
Verdi room at Hotel Quirinale was filled to capacity for his evidence.

It is the third time Cardinal Pell
has testified before the commission; he appeared in person in March 2014 and
again later that year via video link from Rome. He answered questions for four
hours and was expected to repeat those hours for two-three more nights as the
hearings continue.

The cardinal met privately with
Pope Francis Feb. 29.

The Royal Commission was
announced by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November 2012 and was tasked
with making recommendations on issues relating to child protection in institutions
and government. It is empowered to employ a combination of public and private
hearings, roundtable discussions and research projects, but has no ability to
make findings in relation to criminal conduct.

Cardinal Pell arrived at the Rome
hotel about three hours before he was due to testify.

Furness began her questioning by
asking Cardinal Pell about his role and authority within the Holy See, the
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and the new judicial section
set up within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge bishops on
matters of abuse of office connected to the abuse of minors.

He confirmed that his advice was
sought on the establishment of the pontifical commission, that he fully
supported it, and that while he did not control the resources made available to
it, had made it clear that anything it wanted should be provided.

Focus then turned to the cardinal’s
early years as an assistant pastor in the Diocese of Ballarat, a large diocese
spanning some 22,000 square miles in western Victoria. Cardinal Pell spent the
initial years following his 1966 ordination studying in Rome and the United
Kingdom and did not take up his first appointment as an assistant pastor until

He told the commission that during
the early 1970s there was a predisposition to not believe children and that, too
many times, complaints were dismissed in sometimes “scandalous”

He said that reasonable
complaints were dealt with poorly by church authorities and that the instinct
was to protect the institution and community of the church from shame. He also commented
that there was a well-intended overestimate of what could be treated by
psychiatry and psychology.

Quizzed at length about his
knowledge of complaints against Msgr. John Day, a priest who died in 1978
before any charges could be laid against him, Cardinal Pell said that while he
could recall some discussions at the time incidents were reported in a
newspaper in 1972, Msgr. Day’s parish in the town of Mildura was 120 miles from
his own parish in Swan Hill; the distance meant that the gossip from one town
did not necessarily reach another.

Asked about his next appointment
as assistant priest at St. Alipius, Ballarat East, he said he had heard
unspecified reports of harsh discipline being inflicted on children at a local
Catholic school and possible other infractions of a sexual nature by Brother
Edward Dowlan.

The schools connected to the
parish were run by the Christian Brothers, several of whom would later be
convicted of numerous sexual offenses against children. Cardinal Pell told the commission
he had discussed the matter with the school chaplain, who assured him the
Brothers were aware and dealing with the matter. Brother Dowlan left the school
shortly thereafter.

Another priest resident at the
St. Alipius presbytery during the period in question was Father Gerald Ridsdale,
who has been in prison since 1994 for these crimes and has been liaicized. Cardinal Pell told the commission
that the way Ridsdale was dealt with by Bishop Ronald Mulkearns — who gave
testimony via video link from a nursing home where he is receiving
palliative care for cancer — was a “catastrophe” for the victims and
the church.

“If effective action had
been taken earlier, an enormous amount of suffering would have been avoided,”
the cardinal said.

The hearing adjourned shortly
after the questions about Ridsdale began, but Cardinal Pell’s relationship with
and knowledge of the offenses committed by Ridsdale are expected to be the
focus of more analysis in the coming days.

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