Cardinal George Pell testifies from Rome for abuse royal commission: day four

By John Lyons
March 03, 2016

Survivor Phil Nagle outside Hotel Quirinale hotel in Rome.

Cardinal Pell (right) walks paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale to court in 1993.

Abuse survivor David Ridsdale is in Rome for the hearing.

Cardinal Pell, second from left, arrives at the Quirinale hotel in Rome for his fourth and final day of testimony.

[with video]

Cardinal George Pell has finished giving evidence to the royal commission on his fourth and final day about what he knew of sexual abuse by paedophile priests and brothers in Victoria in the 1970s.

The cardinal, who is now the Vatican’s finance chief, was too ill to return to Australia for questioning and has been testifying live via videolink from the Hotel Quirinale in Rome in front of a group of survivors from Ballarat.

Here’s how yesterday unfolded. Read the key points on today’s hearing from Jacquelin Magnay in Rome and John Lyons & Dan Box at The Royal Commission in Sydney, below.

All times AEST

1.46am: ‘It’s been a hard slog’

Pell has spoken briefly to the media outside the Hotel Quirinale.

“It’s been a hard slog, at least for me, I’m a bit tired,” he said.

When asked what the most difficult part of his week had been, he replied: “reading the transcripts of the way the victims suffered in preparation for this.”

“I hope my appearance here has contributed a bit to healing, to improving the situation,” he said.

OPINION: All of Ballarat’s men of the cloth failed. ‘I think Australians have heard enough to make their own judgments about Pell’s conduct’, writes Jack the Insider, here.

12.40pm: Hearing complete

Cardinal Pell has finished giving evidence to the royal commission. He has given almost 20 hours of testimony.

“You won’t be required further,” Commissioner Peter McClennan told him.

In the final hour of testimony, Cardinal Pell said he ignored opposition from the Vatican to dismiss paedophile priest Peter Searson.

“Rome found against me,” Cardinal Pell said of his 1997 move as archbishop to force Searson to resign.

“I was quite clear in my obligations to the community so I must say I just ignored the Roman decision and Rome didn’t push the point.”

11.30am:Education boss in ‘appalling situation’

Cardinal Pell has described the head of the Catholic Education Office as a “very competent director” after saying previously he was deceived by the office about a paedophile priest.

Cardinal Pell told commission he was deceived by the office, which did not reveal a series of complaints about Doveton parish priest Father Peter Searson when he reported another complaint to the office in 1989.

He said the education authorities deceived him because they were fearful of him speaking out and upsetting he status quo.

On Thursday he said the director of the CEO at the time, Monsignor Thomas Doyle, was “a very competent director of education”.

“We now know, as I didn’t at the time, that he had stated explicitly he wanted Searson removed,” Cardinal Pell said.

“When the Archbishop refused to do that it put Father Doyle in an appallingly difficult situation.”

12.06pm: Lifelong harm for ‘many’ victims

Cardinal Pell says not all victims of child sex abuse by clergy have suffered irreparable harm, but many did.

A victims’ lawyer Cassie Serpell asked the cardinal if he acknowledged clergy abuse victims had suffered irreparable harm including long-term psychological harm.

Cardinal Pell replied: “Not all of them did but many did.

“I have read many of their stories. They’re harrowing stories and I feel deeply for them,” he told the commission.

“Many of them are lifelong sufferers.” Cardinal Pell also said he deeply regretted the impact the abuse had on survivors’ faith.

Ms Serpell said her client Julie Stewart had never stepped inside a confessional since she was indecently assaulted as a 10-year-old girl by Melbourne priest Peter Searson during confession in 1985.

Cardinal Pell said he deeply regretted that and that the abuse happened.

“Of course one of the other things I regret as a Catholic priest is the damage that these crimes do to the faith of the survivors, of the victims and their friends and family and generally throughout the society.

“I lament that.”

The commission has heard police wrongly decided in 1990 that Searson, the Doveton parish priest, had committed no crime when he indecently assaulted Ms Stewart.

Ms Stewart later received compensation and an apology from Cardinal Pell through the Melbourne Response he set up as Melbourne archbishop in 1996.

12pm: Hearing resumes

11.44am: Survivors welcome Pope’s Pell updates

Australian survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of paedophile Catholic priests are pleased Pope Francis has been given daily updates on Cardinal Pell’s testimony to the child abuse royal commission.

On Wednesday night Cardinal Pell told the commission he had met with the Pope on Monday after his first night of evidence and had arranged for him to receive daily updates on the hearings.

The cardinal said he had not discussed the commission hearings with the Pope.

A group of survivors of clergy sex abuse have been in Rome to hear the cardinal’s evidence but have been disappointed by his constant denials he was aware of paedophile priest offending or was involved in covering up such offending.

Campaign link: Send Ballarat Survivors To Rome

Abuse survivor Phil Nagle told reporters on Wednesday night it was good news that the Pope was being informed of the Pell testimony.

“We’re very happy about that,” he said. “We would like to think that the Pope is informed about what is going on because this is a very serious problem that the world has had.”

The survivors’ group hopes to have an audience with the Pope on Friday to urge better systems within the Catholic Church to prevent clergy sex abuse against children.

Mr Nagle said high church officials needed to ask themselves “What would Jesus have done?” Fellow abuse survivor Peter Blenkiron said the survivors were “broken men” maintaining their dignity in the face of a lack of empathy displayed by Cardinal Pell during his evidence.

11.35am: Hearing adjourns for short break

11am: Pell was ‘in loop’ on abuse complaints

Cardinal Pell was “in the loop” over serious complaints about paedophile priest Peter Searson after worried parents wrote to education authorities, the child abuse royal commission has heard.

Cardinal Pell said he would have been aware of concerns raised by parents from the Victorian parish of Doveton in a 1991 letter to the Catholic Education Office that said Searson was going into the boys’ toilets, watching boys in the shower and taking children into the presbytery without permission.

He said he did not investigate the matter because it was the responsibility of the CEO and the Vicar General.

“If they’d asked my opinion I would have given it,” he said. He agreed that he was “in the loop as far as knowledge of Father Searson being a risk to children” but said the issue was the level of risk and “just what could be done within church and state law”.

The Catholic Church substantiated four complaints of child sexual abuse against Searson. In 1997 he was also convicted of hitting an altar boy. He died in 2009.

Commissioner Peter McClellan said the allegations in the letter were “extraordinary” and occurred in a school for which Cardinal Pell, as an auxiliary bishop in the Melbourne diocese, had responsibility.

Commissioner McClellan asked Cardinal Pell if he had responsibility to ensure the problems were investigated, regardless of who had formal authority.

Cardinal Pell said there was an investigation by the CEO and by lawyers and he was “satisfied that the matter was in hand”.

10.50am: I thought priest was on study leave

Cardinal Pell believed an “effeminate” priest accused of abusing children a week after his ordination was sent overseas to study.

The cardinal has previously told the child abuse royal commission he always had reservations about Father Paul Ryan and was never supportive of his priestly vocation.

This was because Ryan had a “rather effeminate manner”, Dr Pell told the commission via audio visual link from Rome on Thursday. Cardinal Pell shared his concerns about Ryan with other priests, but he could not recall who.

Ryan was sent to the US in 1977 and 1979.

In 2006, when he was 57, he was jailed after pleading guilty to assaulting an altar boy in his parish house.

Commission chair Peter McClellan referred to a letter written by former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, stating some priests had problems with Ryan.

Justice McClellan: “Do you say that you had no idea (why he was sent to the US)?” Cardinal Pell: “I have mentioned that I regarded him as at least a potential problem. I wasn’t aware that there was a paedophilia problem and I thought he was there basically to study.” “I could well have imagined that the study in the United States was to help him overcome some adult sexual problem, something like that.” Justice McClellan noted that in 1970s the offence of buggery was a criminal offence in Victoria.

“But you say that your thoughts were he may have had problems in sexual relations as an adult but not with anyone under the age of 18,” he added.

Dr Pell replied: “Not with anyone under the age of 18, yes.” The cardinal also said that up to the time he left the Ballarat diocese he did not further discuss his concerns about Ryan.

10.28am: Pell denies lying about Ridsdale

Cardinal Pell denies lying about being told nothing about the real reason Victorian paedophile priest Gerald Francis Ridsdale was being moved.

Cardinal Pell said he would have remembered if paedophilia was mentioned as the reason for Ridsdale being moved at meetings of then Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns’ advisers in the 1970s and 1980s.

A victims’ barrister Jim Shaw told Cardinal Pell: “I suggest very directly you are lying about this to protect your own reputation.” Cardinal Pell said: “I say that that is completely untrue and unjustified by any evidence. It is a baseless allegation.”

10.05am: Hearing resumes9.20am: Hearing adjourned

9.15am: Walking with Ridsdale a mistake

Cardinal Pell says it was a mistake to walk paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale to court in 1993.

A photograph of Dr Pell, who was then an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, and Ridsdale walking together is often used by critics of the Catholic Church as evidence it was more inclined to support paedophile priests rather than victims of child sexual abuse.

Giving evidence on Thursday, Cardinal Pell said he was asked in May 1993 to either give evidence or give Ridsdale a reference. There were prolonged discussions with Ridsdale’s lawyer, he told the child abuse royal commission by audio visual link from Rome. “I made it quite clear that I was not going to dispute any of the allegations, that I was not going to imply any disrespect for the victims, the survivors,” Dr Pell said.

“I certainly was proposing to say that although I was unaware of much of what he’d done, that already it had done great damage to the church.” The cardinal said he told the lawyer the only thing he would say was that, as a priest, Ridsdale had done good things like burying the dead and celebrating the sacraments.

The lawyer then said he wouldn’t call Dr Pell to give evidence and asked him to walk Ridsdale to court instead.

“And I said yes. I now realise that was a mistake,” he said. Cardinal Pell explained he walked with Ridsdale believing - in line with Christian teaching - in being kind to prisoners.

The photograph led to the formation of Broken Rites, a Melbourne-based support group for victims of clergy abuse.

The group uses the image on its internet homepage.

8.55am: I didn’t do anything about rumours

Cardinal Pell has admitted a schoolboy alerted him to concerns about St Patricks priest Father Ted Dowlan back in 1973 but he did nothing about it.

Cardinal Pell said the boy told him something like “Dowlan is misbehaving with boys’’. He agreed the information was serious but when asked by the commissioner what he did about it he replied “I didn’t do anything about it.’’

Cardinal Pell said he eventually inquired of the issue to the school chaplain.

“I did take opportunity to ascertain the reliability of the rumours, I was told there was something in them and it was being dealt with.’’ Cardinal Pell said.

He was told Dowlan went on to sexually abuse young boys up until 1985 and that he could have done something to put a stop to it. But Cardinal Pell said that was a vast overstatement.

He said “People had different attitude then. There was no specifics about the activity or how serious it was, the boy wasn’t asking me to do anything about it, he was just lamenting and mentioning it.’’

Lawyer Peter O’Brien, representing a former student of the Christian Brothers from Ballarat, asked Cardinal Pell “why on earth” he did not mention the complaint to police or insurance companies involved in cases brought against the Christian Brothers about Dowlan since the 1990s.

“Why do we hear about it this week for the first time?” Mr O’Brien asked.

Cardinal Pell said it was because he had “no idea that the Christian Brothers were covering up in the way in which it’s now apparent”.

Dowlan continued to abuse dozens of children until 1985 But Cardinal Pell said he could not have done something to stop the crimes.

He said he did not withhold information and rejected the suggestion he was “in the business ... of trying to minimise your own involvement”.

Mr O’Brien said Cardinal Pell had “pointed the finger at other people” and was prepared to deny the truthful accusation his client had made against him.

Cardinal Pell rejected the claim and said the accusation - that he had ignored another complaint about Dowlan beating a boy - was “demonstrably false”.

8.22am: ‘Gerry’s been rooting boys again’

Cardinal Pell has emphatically denied telling another priest that Fr Gerald Francis Ridsdale was abusing boys again.

Former altar boy BWE has testified he overhead Cardinal Pell tell Fr Frank Madden before a funeral in Ballarat in 1983: “Ha, ha, I think Gerry’s been rooting boys again.” Cardinal Pell again denied the claim.

“Let me begin by saying that nearly every detail in this allegation is manifestly false,” he said.

Fr Madden has previously told the inquiry Cardinal Pell never said that.

BWE’s lawyer sought the cardinal’s view on whether or not he felt he had been the target of a witch hunt in Australia because of the child sexual abuse scandals.

“I have never expressed such a view, but I must confess the idea has occurred to me,” he said.

Asked if he felt victimised by the commission process, Cardinal Pell said he was keen to take part.

“By the process itself, no, but I am very keen to clearly demonstrate that when false claims are made against me that I explain the grounds why they are false, as I’ve done in this case.”

8.10am: Ballarat ‘a disastrous coincidence’

Cardinal Pell says it was a “disastrous coincidence” that five paedophiles ended up at the one Victorian school and parish in the 1970s.

Four paedophile Christian Brothers taught at Ballarat East’s St Alipius Boys’ School and paedophile priest Gerald Francis Ridsdale was the parish priest.

“I think it was a disastrous coincidence,” Cardinal Pell said.

Cardinal Pell said he did not believe the Christian Brothers meant to put those people together.

“I think their leadership in this area is pretty disastrous but I wouldn’t for a minute think that they put all these people together for some specific purpose.” Cardinal Pell said he had nothing to do with St Alipius school although he lived in the St Alipius presbytery, which he shared with Ridsdale and another priest for nine or 10 months in 1973. “I lived there, I helped out at the weekends,” he said.

“And of course I regret that that situation was there and that I didn’t have the information to do something to help.

“All those things at that stage were hidden to nearly everyone in the parish.”

8am: I regret ‘no interest’ remark

Cardinal Pell says he regrets his choice of words when he described offending by paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale as a sad story that “wasn’t of much interest” to him.

Cardinal Pell said he always felt sorry for Ridsdale’s nephew David who was abused by his uncle. When he was reminded by counsel for David Ridsdale that he had told the commission on Tuesday that he had “no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils that Ridsdale had perpetrated”, the cardinal said he could not remember saying that.

He asked the context be explained and when it was said he had “messed up” the time sequence completely.

“I regret the choice of words. I was very confused, I responded poorly,” Cardinal Pell said.

“Just previous to this exchange we were talking about `93, ‘94. Then it swung over to the incidents in ‘74, ‘75. It was badly expressed.” He said in 1993 he was a Melbourne official considering something that happened in Inglewood.

“I have never enjoyed reading the accounts of these sufferings and I tried to do that only when it was professionally and absolutely appropriate because the behaviour’s abhorrent and painful to read about.” He said it was “completely untrue” that he didn’t have much interest in what David Ridsdale told him about the crimes of his uncle.

Cardinal Pell said David Ridsdale had never claimed he denied his primary interest at the time was protecting the church.”

7.22am: Pell denies attempt to silence victim

Cardinal Pell has again denied asking a nephew and victim of paedophile priest Gerald Francis Ridsdale what it would take to keep him quiet.

David Ridsdale has previously testified that when he told Cardinal Pell in 1993 he had been abused by his uncle, the then-Melbourne bishop replied: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.”

Mr Ridsdale’s lawyer Stephen Odgers SC asked: “Was it the case that you didn’t have much interest in what David Ridsdale told you about the crimes of Gerald Ridsdale?” Cardinal Pell replied: “That’s completely untrue and David has never claimed that.” Asked if his primary interest was to protect the church, Cardinal Pell said “not in the slightest”.

Cardinal Pell said there was a radical misunderstanding between himself and Mr Ridsdale over their 1993 telephone conversation. “I’m not even sure what keeping quiet means,” he said.

“I do dispute that.

“But for a man who was expressing a preference for a church hearing rather than going to the police, I wouldn’t have had any dispute with him on that score, although I have never impeded or discouraged anyone from going to the police.”

Cardinal Pell said Mr Ridsdale’s claim he tried to bribe him was implausible.

“I was aware that the police were already speaking to his uncle and so therefore I would have no motive in trying to prevent him going to the police,” he said.

“I’ve never discouraged anyone from going to the police.

“It’s implausible because I was an auxiliary bishop and I had no access to money or no access to significant resources.

“It’s implausible because I was an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne and this was a matter for the Ballarat diocese.

“And it’s implausible because, of course, the attempt to bribe someone is criminal.” Cardinal Pell said he did not have access to significant church funds to do anything significant that was legal, much less something that was illegal.

“I can’t remember him stating that he wanted money or anything exactly like that.”

Commission chair Justice Peter McClellan said although Cardinal Pell was a Melbourne bishop and said it was a Ballarat issue, he could have offered to approach the Ballarat bishop and asked him to help.

Cardinal Pell replied: “Yes, and I offered to do whatever David would like to suggest. ‘Let me know whatever I might do to help’ - I think that’s very plausible that I said that.” Cardinal Pell said the whole tenor and nature of the discussion with Mr Ridsdale was to express his desire to help and find some way of doing so, and if Mr Ridsdale wanted him to contact the bishop he would have done so.

David Ridsdale’s lawyer asked Cardinal Pell if it was true he had offered Mr Ridsdale financial assistance and that Mr Ridsdale had angrily responded “F*** you George and everything you stand for”.

Cardinal Pell said the swearing never happened.

“I don’t think in fact it’s ever happened to my face in 50 years of priesthood and secondly, I would have been absolutely shocked,” he said.

The commission heard David Ridsdale called Cardinal Pell in 1993 to tell him he had been abused.

Cardinal Pell said he offered to help Mr Ridsdale but did nothing because he wasn’t asked and the offences occurred in Ballarat diocese, while he was now an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne.

Cardinal Pell accompanied Father Gerald Ridsdale into court in May 1993, three months after the call.

7.10am: Hearing begins

7.05am: Survivors to meet Pope

The Ballarat survivors group are confident of meeting Pope Francis on Friday and are preparing to meet Cardinal Pell later Thursday after the Vatican responded to their high profile campaign highlighting clergy sexual abuse.

Group spokesman David Ridsdale said on the eve of Cardinal Pell’s fourth evening of testimony to the Royal Commission: “Most likely we will meet with Cardinal Pell and we have a good chance of a Papal meeting on Friday. We will hear later in the night for sure. We have put forward our request and I can say we have had a much more positive response.’’

He said he would look for some tangible responses from the Pope during any such meeting at the Vatican.

“We want an understanding and an acknowledgment this is a global systemic problem, they go to the top and an acknowledgment there will be action and not words,’’ he said.

Another survivor Andrew Collins said the group had a lot of optimism and hope. “Maybe

we are eternal optimists but we don’t give up, we want to hear, so it can help us heal,’’ he said.

“We cant change what has happened to us, we can’t go back but we want to do some good with it so our children and grandchildren will not have to go through it.’’

The survivors have confirmed that Cardinal Pell’s office has backtracked on a list of conditions imposed on any meeting. The meetings between the survivors and Cardinal Pell will have no confidentiality clauses and they will be able to meet in two large groups.

5.55am: Pell arrives for last night of testimony

Cardinal George Pell has arrived at the Quirinale Hotel in Rome for his last night of giving evidence. The 74-year-old has denied knowledge of most paedophile activity in the Ballarat and Melbourne dioceses when he served there in the 1970s and 1980s, and blamed others in the church for mistakes made and cover-ups of such offending.

Commission interrogators have labelled some of his evidence “completely implausible”.

On Wednesday night Rome time, he pulled up in a car outside the Quirinale and, with security officers clearing the way, walked through a media throng into the hotel. Proceedings are due to begin at the earlier time of 7am AEST.

Australian survivors of clergy sex abuse have been in Rome to attend the cardinal’s testimony and have expressed dismay at his denials and explanations.

They look set to meet with the cardinal on Thursday and have also asked for an audience with Pope Francis to push for better systems in the church to prevent child sex abuse by clergy.

Pell to face victim’s lawyers

Pell will today face questioning from sex abuse victims’ lawyers.

Cardinal Pell has accused former Melbourne archbishop Frank Little and CEO officials of not telling him about accusations made against priest Peter Searson, while on Tuesday he made similar claims against Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns and his knowledge of the crimes of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.

The commission heard that a delegation of teachers from the Melbourne parish of Doveton went to Cardinal Pell - then an auxiliary bishop - in November 1989 about Searson harassing children, staff and parents, showing children a body in a coffin, committing acts of animal cruelty and unnecessarily using the children’s toilets.

Cardinal Pell said the CEO did not brief him adequately about Searson and that Archbishop Little had also deceived him by not revealing the complaints he had received.

Ms Furness suggested the cardinal’s claims about not being properly briefed were “completely implausible” because the education office had acted to pass on complaints to other senior figures.

“I can only tell you the truth,” the cardinal replied.

Cardinal Pell said he believed the CEO hid details from him because he was known to be outspoken and they were “very keen to keep the lid on the situation”.

Cardinal Pell has maintained he did not know about paedophile priests in Ballarat, where he was a priest and advisor to Bishop Mulkearns in the 1970s, and the episcopal vicar for education in diocese schools.

He told the commission he had heard “unfortunate rumours” about Christian Brother Edward Dowlan who abused children at schools in the diocese but said he was not concerned when Dowlan was moved from one school to another because he did not know the exact accusations against him.

“More than 40 years ago I did not think that was unusual or inappropriate,” he said.

Survivors of sexual abuse who have travelled to Rome to watch Cardinal Pell give his evidence say they’ve given up on reaching any satisfaction from his evidence and now want to speak to the Pope.

Survivor David Ridsdale said Cardinal Pell had made it clear he did not have the power or the interest to change the structure of the church, “so we need to speak to the boss”.


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