Cardinal George Pell's Day of "Implausible" Deniability

By Barney Zwartz
The Age
March 2, 2016

[with video]

Poor Cardinal Pell, always the victim of such appalling deception and lies by those he should have been able to trust.

If only he had known the truth about goings on in Ballarat and Doveton with abusive priests Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson, matters would have been so different.

That was the line Cardinal Pell ran consistently before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Wednesday, and he held it in the face of obvious incredulity by commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan and senior counsel Gail Furness, who frankly told him his evidence was implausible and designed to deflect blame from himself.

Father Peter Searson in a Doveton Holy Family Primary School staff photo from 1992.

Cardinal Pell replied: "Counsel, I can only tell you the truth, the whole story of Searson is implausible and the cover-up is equally implausible. I can only tell you the way it was."

This alleged conspiracy against Pell was the day's new development. He has criticised former church leaders but this is the first we have heard of a long-standing pattern of deception.

Mind you, Pell never had a duty to do more in his view, because that duty always belonged to others. At most, he "might have pushed a bit harder".

Cardinal George Pell leaves the Quirinale hotel in Rome after another day of speaking to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Photo: AP

The third day of Cardinal Pell's evidence by video link from Rome focused mostly on the situation at Doveton parish in Melbourne's outer east, which suffered six sexual abusers in succession, four as parish priest, plus an assistant and a locum. The hearing dealt with the last of them, Father Peter Searson, whose bishop Pell was for some years in the 1980s and '90s.

The Age was first to reveal some of Searson's depredations in September 2012, based on the stories of two courageous teachers at different times: Doveton Holy Family principal Graeme Sleeman and teacher Carmel Rafferty.

Both lost their careers after attempting to have the Catholic Education Office and the church hold Searson to account and protect the children.

Graeme Sleeman resigned as principal of Holy Family school in Doveton after spending years trying to get the church to act against Father Peter Searson. Photo: Penny Stephens

Searson, who often wore military fatigues and carried a revolver, loved to get the children into confession, where he would have them sit on his lap or kneel between his knees. A violent man, he also enjoyed belting them, and some he sexually abused.

The Royal Commission has much more evidence of his bizarre and cruel behaviour than I knew about in that article, including repeatedly raping an altar boy, holding a knife to the breast of a child, stabbing a bird with a screwdriver in front of children, and torturing a cat.

Many parents, especially women, found him intimidating and did not want to be alone with him, nor would they allow their children to be.

Incoming Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell with his predecessor Frank Little in 1996. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Both Sleeman and Rafferty separately devised strategies to ensure an adult was always close by. During Rafferty's time, after Sleeman had resigned, a delegation went to Pell to complain about Searson, but Rafferty said their concerns were dismissed.

Pell told the Royal Commission that was because he was deceived by Archbishop Little and the education office, the latter perhaps because they wanted to keep a lid on matters and were scared he would ask "inconvenient" questions.

Furness summarised: so Pell was deceived by Bishop Mulkearns and one or more consultors in Ballarat, Archbishop Frank Little and the Catholic Education Office in Melbourne? "That is correct," the cardinal replied.

Furness: "That's an extraordinary position, Cardinal!"

Pell: "It was an extraordinary world of crime and cover ups and people not wanting the status quo disturbed. When I became Archbishop [in 1996] I turned the situation right around so that the Melbourne Response procedures were light years ahead of all this obfuscation and prevarication and deception."

Carmel Rafferty lost her career after attempting to have the Catholic Education Office and the church hold Father Peter Searson to account Photo: Ken Irwin

Pell excused the church's lack of action on the grounds that the police did not have enough evidence to proceed, partly because parents did not want to pursue matters. McClellan spoke for the watching world when he asked, "Doesn't the church have responsibility to take action itself?"

Pell agreed that he knew Searson was "a serious problem", but did not think he should be removed as priest. At most, the cardinal's error was that he might have asked questions more vigorously, he felt.

Which leaves one wondering, just what sort of misbehaviour should disqualify someone as a priest.

Furness asked if he accepted that he had participated in the church's failure of process. "Tangentially, marginally."

It seems that to the end Cardinal Pell will channel Edith Piaf: Non, je ne regrette rien.








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