What Cardinal George Pell should have told the child abuse royal commission

By Terry Laidler
Sydney Morning Herald
March 14, 2016

Cardinal George Pell giving evidence to the royal commission via video link from Rome.

George Pell
Photo by John Spooner

[with video]

Your Honour,

Please could I start by making a statement that I hope will help the royal commission and that I pray will give some solace to so many people I now know to have been traumatised by abuse suffered on an horrendous scale.

I apologise to them profusely: I did not do enough and more people were abused by the same priests and brothers complained about. 

I have no wish to put people who say they told me about sexual abuse into a position where their recollections need to be tested in minute detail against mine. They have gone long enough with their voices not being heard by powerful figures in the Catholic Church and in society generally.

I can accept that, despite differences of recollection between me and some of them, there is already enough evidence before the commission that many tried to tell me from the time I was a junior priest in Ballarat and that I seemed to them to be dismissive or lacked compassion or took no action. For that, I apologise to them profusely: I did not do enough and more people were abused by the same priests and brothers complained about.

I must, also, accept my share of the responsibility for the systematic cover-up that occurred when I was a consultor in the diocese of Ballarat. Bishop Ronald Mulkearns acted shamefully, and we were complicit in it. I am not sure why exactly, perhaps it was a misguided wish to protect the church as an institution, or a desire for advancement and the clerical culture that made us loyal to the bishop and to our fellow priests in such a dysfunctional way.

My colleagues and I may have been deceived or kept in the dark, but nonetheless, we lacked the compassion or the courage to ask more questions about things that should have focused our attention acutely. When we knew of crimes committed against children, as loyal advisors we should have demanded that he act. When he did not listen to us, we should have resigned and gone to the police ourselves. I am so sorry for the hurt and damage that not doing so has caused.

By the time I came to Melbourne as an auxiliary bishop, I had no excuses for any continuing ignorance or lack of understanding. In that context, accompanying Gerald Ridsdale to court was one of the most harmful errors of judgment I have ever made.

And, there is now copious evidence available to the commission to make it transparent that Archbishop Frank Little and his leadership group, of which I was a senior part, failed abjectly to deal properly with abusing priests.

My own previous attempts to shift responsibility for inaction in matters in which I was directly involved were just that, attempts to protect myself from recrimination by blaming others. I will do that no longer. I hope that that goes some way towards making retribution to good people who acted to end abuse but whom I have blamed.

I do hope that the commission will be gracious enough to consider that in my time as Archbishop of Melbourne I did at least act promptly to set up a fair and survivor-focused system to deal with allegations of abuse. The suggestion that I set up this Melbourne Response to shield the archdiocese financially is correct. It was one – but only one – of my objectives, and I thought at the time that this was a prudent thing to do as a leader. I can see now that this aspect of the scheme vitiated much of its benefit for survivors.

I strongly endorse the commission's call for a national contributory compensation and survivor-support scheme. I further believe that all allegations of abuse should be reviewed by independent external authorities.I must also concede that my actions in seeking to prevent reputational and financial damage to the church where confronted with legal action were wrong. The "Ellis Defence" is a sham I should never have allowed to run, and I sincerely hope that the commission will recommend changes to Australian law that will no longer allow churches to evade communal responsibility for their obviously corporate actions.

On the basis of how I now genuinely view my own actions, I will tender my resignation to the Pope. I do not mind being "scapegoated" as some have said, because I know that until I accept responsibility, apologise for and bear the personal consequences of such a huge failure of trust, the process of healing for survivors and even for the church itself will never have a sound basis.

Thank you.


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