Analysis: after Four Days of Evidence We're Still in the Dark about What Cardinal George Pell Really Knew
By Jane Lee
Sydney Morning Herald
March 3, 2016
When it comes to responses to child sexual abuse, there have always been two George Pells.
For four days, they have fought tooth and nail for air in a Roman hotel room.
Either he did not know enough about child sexual abuse to try to stop it from happening or he did, but didn't act.
|Cardinal George Pell giving evidence via video link from Rome.|
No one expected the Cardinal to abandon the best version of himself, which he has defended for decades, including in media statements whenever his name is uttered at the royal commission.
No surprises, then, when he consistently distanced himself and the Catholic Church from the handful of aberrant church officials who he blamed for covering up child abuse in Ballarat and Melbourne.
He refuses to admit that his negligence also likely allowed more children to be abused.
At the height of his career, his only regret is that he had not been more curious, which is tempered by his belief that others prevented him from doing more.
Yet his latest testimony revealed how little weight this carries in a world that has learned so much in a few years about what Pell and those who surrounded him knew about children being sexually abused, how much children suffered and how little the church cared for them.
Counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, SC, said it was "implausible" that then-bishop of Ballarat Ronald Mulkearns, Pell's fellow consultors including his cousin, Reverend Henry Nolan, the Catholic Education Office and then-Archbishop of Melbourne Frank Little had all kept him in the dark about allegations against two of the church's worst known child sex offenders, Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson.
Pell's argument was designed to deflect blame from himself, she said.
This was the most damning thing she could have said, short of calling him a liar, and will likely form part of her submissions to commissioners about how they should treat his evidence when making their findings.
Pell responded that there was no evidence to the contrary - lawyer-speak for "I deny it, and you can't prove I'm wrong".
He also argued that his position in the church hierarchy limited him in what he could be expected to do to respond to child abuse allegations.
It was up to others to act and he took them at their word when they said the complaints had been handled.
In a moment of frustration, Pell said "you can't wave a magic wand and correct the situation easily in every situation."
Ms Furness rejected this outright.
"We are talking about the safety of children, Cardinal…" she said. "You don't need a magic wand; you just need a group of adults who are responsible don't you?"
Pell's final defences - that he had never visited Gerald Ridsdale at many of the parishes where he'd abused children, never been told by police he was a risk, and that he ultimately forced Searson to leave the church - years after he first heard of abuse - also fell flat.
This is because Pell failed to intervene as one of Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns' consultors when Ridsdale was being moved between parishes amid abuse allegations, or as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne when he was told Searson was harassing children, before many more were abused.
Pell's defenders still long for the old world, where priests were always taken at their word. Why, they say, can't we just believe the man's version of events and move on?
The same could be asked of the many priests - including Pell - who did not believe children's claims they had been raped and beaten.
Victims were shunned by their families, church officials and corrupt police officers more interested in the church than the safety of children in their care, even though they had no reason to lie.
George Pell has vested interests in ensuring the image of his best-self remains intact.
The commission's findings could see him lose everything he holds dear - his lifelong career, his reputation, even his freedom. Most importantly, he could lose his argument that the Catholic Church did not fail children and does not need to change.
We watched two George Pells fight for control of the history books this week. One lost.