Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome
Monday 29 February 2016
The Vatican used to be impermeable to horrific stories of child sexual abuse by priests – and complicit in attempts to whitewash the perpetrators’ reputations. It was a place where men such as Cardinal Bernard Law, who became a pariah within the US Catholic church after it became clear that decades of sexual abuse had been covered up within his archdiocese, could go for a comfortable retirement and to escape glaring media attention or, even worse, possible investigation.
But an unexpected confluence of extraordinary events has changed all that this week. The film Spotlight, the tale of the Boston Globe’s dogged investigation into clerical sexual abuse, won Hollywood’s most coveted prize of the Oscar for best picture.
More importantly, hours before the Oscar win was announced, one of the most senior officials within the Vatican hierarchy, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, admitted under oath for the first time that he had heard that an Australian Catholic schoolteacher may have engaged in “paedophilia activity”, but never followed up on the “one or two fleeting references” he heard about the “misbehaviour”. The teacher in question, Edward Dowlan, a Christian Brother, was later convicted of abusing 20 boys and is serving a six-year prison sentence.
Pell, in an appearance by videolink before the Australian royal commission into institutional responses to sexual child abuse that began at 10pm in Rome and ended at 2am, sounded contrite and sullen as he testified, often using short sentences. He called the church’s response to clerical sexual abuse of children by one serial offender, Gerald Ridsdale, “a catastrophe” for his victims but also for the church.
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