Peter Saunders, the man who wants to bring Cardinal George Pell to justice

By Lisa Visentin
Brisbane Times
June 1, 2015

Peter Saunders with Pope Francis in a screengrab from 60 Minutes.
Photo by Channel Nine

Accuser: Peter Saunders in a screengrab from 60 Minutes.
Photo by Channel Nine

Accused: Cardinal George Pell.
Photo by Joe Armao

Paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale appearing at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

[with video]

It's no secret that Cardinal George Pell has come under sustained criticism in recent years as damning allegations of systemic cover-ups by the Catholic Church have surfaced during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

But until this week, his detractors have been largely Australian and the public censure cauterised at a domestic level. This has been the case even as he ascended to the upper echelons of the Vatican after taking up a coveted role managing the Holy See's finances in February last year.

Enter Peter Saunders, a British child abuse survivor and the man hand-picked by Pope Francis to advise the church on child protection policies. Last year, he joined the nine-member commission, called the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was established by the Pope to address the scourge of sex abuse within the church and which reports directly to him.

On Sunday, he became a powerful voice in the growing crescendo demanding Cardinal Pell be called to account for his role as a senior member of Australia's Catholic clergy during the decades from which countless claims of abuse have emerged. 

Mr Saunders' comments come as questions have intensified over whether Cardinal Pell had supported notorious paedophile priests, including Gerald Ridsdale, instead of protecting victims and their families. He has repeatedly denied these accusations.

"I personally think that his position is untenable, because he has now a catalogue of denials," Mr Saunders, 57, told Channel Nine's 60 Minutes on Sunday night. 

"He has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness – almost sociopathic, I would go as far as to say."

The significance of his excoriating broadside - a papal commissioner calling for the resignation of a senior Vatican figure -  cannot be understated.

Nor can Mr Saunders' fierce resolve for justice, one which is informed as much by his own devout Catholicism as it is by his own horrendous abuse at the hands of two Jesuit priests at a school in Wimbledon, London. 

In addition to the two Jesuit priests, who also molested his brother, he was sexually abused by the head teacher of his primary school in New Malden, London, as well as by a family member. Even after the teacher was exposed as "a serial child abuser", he was simply transferred to another Catholic school within the diocese, rather than being sacked and reported to the police.

His attempts to come to terms with his abuse as an adult prompted him to found the National Association for People Abuse in Childhood, a British charity, in 1995. 

In July last year, he was one of six abuse survivors to relay their experiences directly to the Pope in a meeting at the Vatican. 

"I told the Pope what had happened to me and said that the church must get its act together, otherwise it will be in big trouble," Mr Saunders told The Telegraph, London, in a December interview

Six months after this private meeting, he received the phone call asking him to join the papal commission. 

A self-described "thorn in the side of the Catholic Church", he has been forthright in his criticism of the church's handling of sexual abuse, accusing it of being "intimately involved in cover-ups and denials in the past".  

But he believes Pope Francis is genuine in wanting to crack down on abusive priests, describing him as the "right man for the job at this time".

"I believe him to be sincere. Let's give the process a chance."

It is impossible to know whether Mr Saunders' blistering 60 Minutes interview has caused ructions beneath the Vatican's serene exterior. But his message to Pope Francis was unambiguous.

"I think it's critical [Cardinal Pell] is moved aside – that he is sent back to Australia and that the Pope takes the strongest action against him."

He continued: "To me, it seems highly likely that George Pell knew [why Ridsdale was being moved], and if he knew, and if the bishop knew, then these are people who should actually be facing criminal charges now, not just sanctions at the hands of the Pope or the church or the attention of the media.

"These are people who have allegedly allowed the abuse of children to continue – sometimes for many years – and that is an unforgivable crime."

On Monday, Cardinal Pell slammed Mr Saunders' allegations as "false and misleading" and announced he was seeking legal advice

"Cardinal Pell has never met Mr Saunders, who seems to have formed his strong opinions without ever having spoken to His Eminence," a spokesperson for the Cardinal said in a statement.

"In light of all of the available material, including evidence from the Cardinal under oath, there is no excuse for broadcasting incorrect and prejudicial material."

For now it remains to be seen whether Cardinal Pell will accede to the growing calls for his return to Australia to give evidence at the royal commission but, at the very least, he has indicated his willingness to do so.


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