Cardinal George Pell Vows to Work with Child Sex Abuse Survivors after Gruelling Royal Commission

By Charles Miranda
March 3, 2016

CARDINAL Pell has had an “honest and occasionally emotional meeting” with survivors of child sex abuse in Rome, saying he wants to see Ballarat become a model for healing.

Speaking after an hour-long session with the group of survivors who have travelled to Italy, the Cardinal said he heard each of their stories and suffering individually.

“I’m committed to meeting with these people from Ballarat and surrounding areas. I know many of their families and I know the goodness of so many people in Catholic Ballarat,” he said.

He also committed to helping them work with the Pontifical Commission on sexual abuse in Rome and said “one suicide is too many”.

“I commit myself to working with the group to stop this so that suicide is not seen as an option for those who are suffering. I too, despite the separation of distance, want to help make Ballarat a centre for healing and for peace,” he said.

The emotional meeting took place following a week of gruelling testimony to the Royal Commission in which the Cardinal admitted at times he should have done more, but ultimately maintained he did not know the extent of what was happening in the community.

Earlier, Anthony Foster, whose two young daughters were abused, held up a picture of his children to a large contingent of international media saying: “These are my girls. A Catholic priest was raping them when this photo was taken so that’s why we’ve been fighting for so long.”

Public statement ... Cardinal Pell reads a statement to the media after a private meeting with the clergy victims at Hotel Quirinale in Rome. Picture: Ella PellegriniSource:Supplied

He feels the group had “got somewhere” during the last four days, but the fact remains: “George Pell was the auxiliary bishop in our area looking after the priest who did this to my girls. This was my perfect family. We created that, the Catholic Church destroyed it.”

Phil Nagle privately met the Cardinal earlier in which he said they focused on the future and what more could be done to protect sufferers in future.

David Ridsdale described the face-to-face with the man who he alleges tried to bribe his silence as “extremely emotional and sad”.

“We met on a level playing field, we met as people from Ballarat,” he said.

Heartbreaking ... Anthony Foster shows reporters the photo of his two daughters,who were both abused by the same priest and one of them later committed suicide. Picture: AP Photo/Riccardo De LucaSource:AP


Meanwhile, amid talk of conspiracies and cover-ups, power, deceit and betrayal among priests forced to make hushed promises to hold secrets on original sin, sex orgies, torture and even murder, there is just something a bit tooDa Vinci Code, too cliched, to pitch as a potential new Dan Brown novel.

But this is not fiction but rather extraordinary revelations by a senior figure from the Vatican about the institution that he rightly declared has existed since the days of the Roman Empire and would continue into some form into the next millennia.

While the royal commission into child abuse has been all about who knew what and when and the unsuccessful attempt to have Cardinal Pell held accountable for the offences of those about him, on the side has been revelations of the curious sins of the priesthood.

Survivors ... Cardinal Pell met with child sex abuse victims at Hotel Quirinale in Rome. Picture: Ella PellegriniSource:Supplied

It’s not been so much a secret society since the days of the Reformation but still persisting is, perhaps a dogma short of 21st Century expectations. It remains incumbent perhaps on the royal commission, having now taken 312 days of public hearings, to highlight shortfalls to be considered for change.

“What priests might talk about between themselves is not necessarily what would be discussed in other circles,” Cardinal Pell said in setting up his argument, setting apart men of the cloth.

“There is a saying in the church and elsewhere that those who know don’t say and those who say don’t know. Priests because they hear confessions, can be and must be about certain matters among the most secretive of people. I do not remember much discussion about the secret failings of priests, and certainly at that stage there was never any discussion in my presence about the dreadful story of Ridsdale.”

Fr Gerard Ridsdale has been the worst child sex abuser in Australian history with victims numbered in the hundreds but he was far from alone, as the commission has heard.

The secretive world of priests drew counsel assisting Gail Furness to ask: “Are priests human?”

“I hope so,” Pell responded.

He went on: “Human beings in different categories have very different approaches to these matters. We work within a framework of Christian moral teaching … or certainly we should, and discussion of the secret faults of others is not encouraged.”

Gerald Ridsdale, a school chaplain at St Alipius Boys’ School, Ballarat, was convicted of sexual abuse and indecent assault against 54 children. aged as young as four. He was supported as he went to court by Cardinal George Pell, then an auxiliary bishop in the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese. Picture: Supplied / 60 Minutes/Channel 9Source:News Corp Australia

Cardinal Pell suggested it could be a structural problem of authority but despite his senior role, he knew nothing with scandal and moral crimes apparently compartmentalised.

Pell said priests operated in a climate where a bishop’s power was absolute, “where free discussion is not encouraged and where information is kept very tight, that these abuses were able to go on.”

The commission heard that other witnesses have said the definition of paedophilia within the church is sexual activity with prepubescent children but not adolescent children. The distinction is critical, at least on a moral ground providing almost a get-out clause within church laws.

Cardinal Pell said that was never his thinking but he understood there was internal discussion on the distinction but he said it was a “theoretical possible classification” within literature that makes the distinction.

“Now, to your knowledge, there are many priests who have engaged in sexual activity, aren’t there?” Furness asked.

“Too many,” Pell responded, and agreed that in internal discussions of such topics “gentle and euphemistic language” was more likely to have been used.

Cardinal George Pell in Rome on his fourth day of giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Image. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

But Pell said such sins abounded: “Unfortunately, original sin is alive and well; the tendency to evil in the Catholic Church too, and sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but for good or for ill the church follows the patterns of the societies in which it lives.”

During the course of the inquiry, the commission has heard from some 5000 victims but said the historic perpetrators were too many to number and resources were such it had to concentrate on a few.

The ones they chose were damning — not least of all Fr Ridsdale and his abusing of boys sometimes two to a bed were horrific — as were the abuse by Fr Peter Searson, a Melbourne paedophile priest who would threaten children with a gun, once threatened to gut a nine-year-old girl while he held a knife to her chest, abused children in the confessional and even stabbed a bird to death, tortured a cat for fun and paraded children in front of a dead body in a coffin. Some priests knew, others pretended not to know and his crimes went on for years.

These were not the 16th century incidents but early 1990s.

“Counsel, this was an extraordinary world, a world of crimes and cover-ups, and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed,” Pell said, adding he had since turned things around in Australia.

Despite knowingly committing sexual offences against boys and girls, Peter Searson was a priest for 35 years before he was charged with physical assault. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

But would it now have checks and balances to ensure they couldn’t happen again?

“The church has been going for a couple of thousand years and our patterns of organisation predate modern corporations and as a matter of fact, are a bit similar to the patterns of organisation of the Roman Empire where, in fact, there is a lot of responsibility left to the Diocese and to the particular parish priest,” he said.

Pell concluded: “I don’t think we need to move to a corporate model. The point you are making about intermediary offices, about adequate procedures, is completely correct, but I don’t think we need to abandon the traditional structures to meet the important needs that you are outlining.”








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