George Pell to meet with child abuse survivors after four days of hearings end

By Ben Doherty
March 03, 2016

Cardinal George Pell at the Quirinale hotel in Rome at the end of giving evidence to the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
Photo by Andreas Solaro

Cardinal George Pell will meet victims of child sex abuse at a private meeting in Rome, just hours after stepping down from the witness box of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

After more than 16 hours of at times combative questioning before the commission over what he knew of abuse within the Catholic church, Pell will sit down with some of the victims of that abuse at 11.30am, local time, in Rome.

“There are a few things we will say,” abuse survivor David Ridsdale said in Rome, “but we as a group have made a commitment to ourselves to be diplomatic and dignified.”

David Ridsdale was molested by his uncle, and Pell’s one-time housemate, the former priest Gerald Ridsdale, who is now in prison. Pell walked in support of Ridsdale into court in 1993, an action, Pell conceded yesterday was “a mistake”.

Many of those who will attend Thursday’s meeting were abused at schools and in churches in the diocese of Ballarat, where Pell grew up and where he was a priest in the 1970s and 80s.

Pell said he grieved for the suffering of the victims of abuse and hoped his meeting with them in Rome would contribute to healing.

“Please God, that may take us a little bit forward.”

In testimony before the commission on Thursday, Pell conceded the church had often sought to protect its own reputation at the expense of child sex abuse victims but he maintained he did not know of specific allegations of abuse, or carry any responsibility for the abuse continuing, often for decades, after it was known by church hierarchy.

“The church, too often, did not care adequately for the survivors and children,” Pell said, when asked if the church was more concerned about its own reputation and prestige.

Relentless questioning from a succession of lawyers representing abuse victims on Thursday sought to establish that abuse and paedophilia by priests in Ballarat was “common knowledge” across the diocese, particularly among the Catholic community, and that Pell must, or should, have known, particularly in his role as his episcopal vicar for education in the diocese.

Pell admitted that in 1974 a St Patrick’s schoolboy approached him with allegations about Brother Ted Dowlan, a teacher at the school.

“He said something like ‘Dowlan is misbehaving with boys’,” according to Pell.

Pell agreed with Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan that the allegation was a serious matter. McClellan grilled the cardinal on his response.

McClellan: “What did you do about it?”

Pell: “I didn’t do anything about it.”

McClellan: “Should you have done something about it?”

Pell: “Well, I eventually did. I eventually inquired with the school chaplain.”

McClellan: “You didn’t go straight to the school and say ‘I’ve got this allegation,what’s going on’?”

Pell: “No, I didn’t.”

McClellan: “Should you have?”

Pell: “With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more.”

McClellan: “Why do you need the experience of 40 years later? Wasn’t it a serious matter then?”

Pell: “Yes, but people had a different attitude then. There was no specifics about the activity, how serious it was and the boy wasn’t asking me to do anything about it but just lamenting and mentioning.”

Pell said he was told by the St Patrick’s staff that the Christian Brothers order – of which Dowlan was a member – was handling the issue and that he was being moved to another school. Pell said he presumed Dowlan would receive “help” and did not go to the police or to the bishop of the diocese.

Dowlan went on to abuse boys for at least 14 years more at a succession of schools. He was jailed in 1996, and again in 2015, for offences against more than 40 boys.

In addition to a meeting with Pell, sex abuse victims currently in Rome have also requested an audience with Pope Francis, but the Vatican has been silent on whether the Pontiff will be available.

The Pope has been kept informed of Pell’s appearance before the royal commission.

“I arranged for him to have a summary of each day’s activities provided to him and to the Secretary.”


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