Cardinal Pell pressed over denials he knew about paedophile priests
By Ben Doherty And Melissa Davey
February 29, 2016
Cardinal George Pell’s repeated insistence he knew nothing of paedophile priests being shielded by the church in the 1970s and 80s was “implausible”, the royal commission into child sex abuse has heard.
On Tuesday the most senior Australian Catholic was warned he would be “culpable too” if the commission decided he did know of abuse being covered up.
In a combative appearance, Pell resolutely defended his position that while he was a priest in Ballarat he was unaware paedophile priests were being moved between parishes to escape prosecution, and to protect the reputation of the church.
Pell claimed he knew nothing of the offending of priests, and that he was lied to and deceived by more senior church members who hid from him the activities of paedophiles in the clergy.
Counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness suggested to Pell his ignorance was “implausible”, and he was warned by the commissioner Peter McClellan that “if we were to come to the view that you did know, you would be culpable too”.
“I have the full backing of the pope,” the 74-year-old cardinal had told reporters as he arrived at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome on Monday night, just hours after he met with the pontiff for a previously scheduled meeting in the Vatican.
Pell, the prefect of the secretariat for the economy at the Vatican – essentially the Catholic church’s treasurer – has already appeared twice before this commission in person in Australia.
For this third appearance, he has been granted dispensation to appear via videolink after Vatican doctors ruled he was too ill to fly because of a heart condition.
The focus of Pell’s evidence Tuesday was the movement of the notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, who was shifted from parish to parish across the diocese of Ballarat, as allegations emerged of him raping and abusing children in every place he worked.
Ridsdale was ultimately convicted of more than 140 counts of sexual offences against children, some as young as four, committed between the 1960s and 80s.
In the 70s when Pell was a priest in the diocese of Ballarat, it was “common knowledge” among police, among teachers and parents, and among the broader Catholic communities in a succession of parishes where Ridsdale worked, that he was assaulting children, the commission heard.
The commission was told Ridsdale had sought a move from Apollo Bay after he heard people were “saying things down at the pub about you and kids”, and later fled the parish of Inglewood in the middle of the night after learning of “talk around town that you have been interfering with boys” and that police were making inquiries.
The specifics of Ridsdale’s offending were known by senior church officials, including, the commission was told, the bishop of Ballarat at the time, Ronald Mulkearns, who continually moved Ridsdale to new parishesto shield him from prosecution and protect the church’s reputation.
The decision to move Ridsdale was taken by church consultors, of which Pell was one, at meetings at which Pell was present.
But Pell says he never knew anything of Ridsdale’s offending. He said Mulkearns and others at the meetings who knew of his offending had deceived him and lied to him about why he was being moved. He said there were many reasons why priests might be moved repeatedly, and rapidly, between parishes.
“These matters were not discussed at the consultors’ meetings.”
Pell said he bore no responsibility for Ridsdale being moved to protect the paedophile from prosecution and the church from scandal, because, he says, he did not know Ridsdale was abusing children.
He said he never knew that Ridsdale was living with a 14-year-old boy in the presbytery of the church at Mortlake, despite a slew of documents and correspondence detailing parishioners’ and others’ concerns about the arrangement.
The boy had been seen sleeping on a stretcher in Ridsdale’s bedroom, and has given evidence to the commission he was “sexually abused almost every day”.
At a meeting that discussed Ridsdale being moved to the Catholic Enquiry Centre, away from children, the commission established that at least three consultors at the meeting knew Ridsdale was being moved because of his paedophilic assaults.
Furness said it was “implausible” that Pell did not know of the offending but Pell asserted he was not wilfully blind to paedophilia within the church.
“I knew nothing about his [Ridsdale’s] paedophila, I knew he was a somewhat difficult person, and that he’d been shifted around quite a bit.”
Paul Levey, who was forced to live with Ridsdale when he was just 14, said it was tough to sit through Pell’s evidence.
Levey went to a bar in Rome with other survivors, trying to calm down after what he says was a difficult day of evidence from Pell. Levey suffers from severe deep vein thrombosis which requires medication and frequent walking around, but he said he had refused to leave the Hotel Quirinale and the room where Pell was giving evidence from, despite the pain he was in.
“At one point I had to get paper and write my thoughts down, or I would have lost it,” he said.
“But I didn’t lose it, I held my ground and I tried to stay calm. To hear Pell say that he wasn’t aware of Ridsdale’s abusing was just a joke. He and the other consultors moved Ridsdale multiple times and no one took any notice as to why? I don’t believe it.”
Levey said his mother had called the bishop of Ballaratmultiple times to share her concern that her son was being abused. But she was ingnored, Levey said.
He said he was also angered by Pell’s claims that Ridsdale was “a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”.
“What, allegations of pedophilia wasn’t of much interest to him? Surely any allegation would cause people to say what, where, who? Everyone here was pretty anxious and worked up after hearing that.”
He said he was pleased the commission had asked tough questions of Pell.
Pell said he had been lied to repeatedly by Mulkearns over the reasons for Ridsdale’s constant movements, actions he said were “grave and inexplicable”.
“His [Mulkearns’] repeated refusal to act [to stop Ridsdale offending] is, I think, absolutely extraordinary.”
Pell said it was “totally unacceptable” for paedophile priests to be protected by moving them and that, if he had known, he would have questioned the movements.
The cardinal agreed with McClellan that church officials who knew of paedophilic assaults and did not act to stop them were culpable.
But McClellan warned Pell: “If we were to come to the view that you did know, you would be culpable too.”