Cardinal George Pell went by the book and not the heart

By Andrew Bolt
Herald Sun
March 1, 2016

Cardinal George Pell testifies before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse from Rome.

CARDINAL George Pell ­on Tuesday uttered words that will stain his reputation forever.

Referring to notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, Pell fatefully declared: “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”

Here is the question now for the royal commission into sex abuse of children: is the Vatican’s third-most powerful leader a liar when he says he never knew what Ridsdale, his colleague, was doing in Ballarat?

Or was he just dangerously indifferent to his responsibilities and to the warning signs that children were being raped?

The royal commission seems to think the worst, to judge by its rightly aggressive questioning of Pell on Tuesday.

Pell has maintained he never knew about Ridsdale’s preying on children until around 1990, three years before Ridsdale was charged, and didn’t even hear gossip about it in the years he was a priest in the same diocese.

Gail Furness, SC, assisting the commission, was clearly sceptical.

She repeatedly asked how Pell could not have known about Ridsdale’s abuse of children when it was known by several fellow priests — including a cousin and friends of Pell — as well as by his bishop, a school principal, a doctor, a policemen, drinkers at the Apollo Bay pub, and several parents and children at schools in three towns in the Ballarat diocese.

And this when Pell was the episcopal vicar for education in the diocese. At the very least, he seems to have failed in his job.

Pell offered various reasons — or excuses. His role as vicar was not actually an executive one. The time he could give to it was “limited” by his full-time job running a teachers’ college.

He was often in Melbourne and so “I certainly was not plugged into the life of the diocese”. And he was not one for gossip, saying priests were actually “the most secretive of ­people” and quoting a church saying: “Those who know don’t say; those who say don’t know.”

More damningly, he also ­argued that a parish priest had a lesser responsibility to step in and save children from paedophile priests than did his boss, the bishop.

It sounded awful. It sounded too much like a mind-your-own-business excuse for doing nothing — which Pell denied, insisting he meant that bishops had extra responsibilities.

Indeed, it sounded in some ways like the authentic Pell, an authoritative or authoritarian leader who demands people do their job and follow the rules.

And that was when Pell said those awful words: that Ridsdale’s crimes, when they finally came to light, “wasn’t of much interest to me”.

His fate was sealed. That quote will be hung around Pell’s neck forever. The priest who went by the book, not the heart.

Explaining himself, Pell added: “I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils Ridsdale had perpetrated.”

No, that was really a matter for his bishop, Ronald Mulkearns, who Pell says was a liar who acted disgracefully and “inexplicably” by repeatedly moving Ridsdale from one parish to the next each time he was caught molesting children.

There had been a “gigantic failure of leadership”. But was Pell among those who failed?

And that is when things got a whole lot uglier on Tuesday for him.

In 1977, Pell was appointed one of the “consultors” to Bishop Mulkearns, advising him on things like the movement of priests. Pell has said he never discussed the many moves of Ridsdale — each time to flee scandal — at the meetings of the consultors. He was wrong — or he lied, say his critics.

The royal commission has uncovered minutes showing Pell was present at two meetings that discussed Ridsdale, including one in 1982 after the paedophile had to flee Mortlake.

No wonder. Parents had complained to Mulkearns that Ridsdale had molested children and was even living with a 14-year-old boy who slept in his bedroom. That boy, Paul Levi, says he was continually abused, and that Mulkearns had even seen him living there when he came over for dinner.

But it was Pell’s cousin, vicar-general Henry Nolan, who ­finally ordered Ridsdale to get out of town after finding him with Levi.

The minutes record that the consultors meeting — with Pell — was told moving Ridsdale had “become necessary” but they don’t say why.

Pell said he remembered nothing about that meeting, but this: “I can recall paedophilia was never mentioned.” Mulkearns “would have given some reason” to the meeting but only a general one. Had he mentioned paedophilia, Pell said he would have remembered.

He said Mulkearns had lied to him by instead proposing Ridsdale for a prestigious job that seemed “incompatible” with having to be removed for abusing children. “Some of us were kept in the dark,” he said.

But Pell’s problem is that not all were. At the meeting were at least two consultors who knew very well why Mulkearns was moving Ridsdale.

Pell points out — correctly — that others at the meeting deny the real reason for Ridsdale’s removal was discussed.

But Pell has not explained convincingly why he never asked hard questions about why Ridsdale was being moved on so unusually often.

Again, Pell reverts to his familiar faith in the old lines of command: “As always, the lead was given by the bishop and the presumption was that the bishop was telling the truth. I was happy to take the bishop’s word that it was appropriate for (Ridsdale) to be shifted.”

And is this, then, the best that his defenders can now say of Pell? That he really was just following his orders, not seeking to find those abused children who so needed his care?

How Pell’s supporters would have choked on one of his final answers yesterday about the responsibility of priests to the children being molested by his colleagues. “He has a moral responsibility to do what is appropriate to his position.”

Really? Nothing more?

Royal commission head Peter McClellan seems not to accept Pell did even that.

He said he would have expected Pell to want to know the reasons for Ridsdale’s move from Mortlake.

And he gave a warning that will shake Pell: “If we were to come to the view that you did know (of Ridsdale’s crimes), you would be culpable, too, wouldn’t you? So we have to determine a very serious issue, don’t we?”

Very serious indeed, because Pell swore on a Bible to tell the truth. Now a royal commission seems poised to consider whether this prince of the Catholic Church is a liar.



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