Abuse victims ill-served by witch-hunt against Pell

The Australian
June 02, 2015

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has vital work to do. Regrettably, its pursuit of justice for thousands of victims of despicable crimes is being overshadowed by a nasty sideshow: that is, the pursuit of Cardinal George Pell by those who loathe his muscular Christianity, his social conservatism and his robust style. British anti-child abuse campaigner Peter Saunders, appointed by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is the latest to join the hounds. On Nine Network’s 60 Minutes on Sunday, he demanded action. The Australian agrees. Mr Saunders should apologise to the cardinal for calling him dangerous, callous, cold-hearted, “almost sociopathic” and claiming he treated victims with contempt. Mr Saunders is the victim of grave injustice, abused as a child by two priests. But that is no excuse for inflicting a serious injustice on another innocent man. Mr Saunders did not bother to speak to the cardinal before denigrating his reputation. He has ignored the main facts, as have much of Australia’s liberal-Left media.

George Pell became archbishop of Melbourne in August 1996 and two months later established the Melbourne Response. It was a trailblazing initiative, the first of its kind in Australia with few, if any, parallels in the church overseas. It involved an independent commission, run by an experienced QC, counselling services and a compensation panel. It worked. Dozens of priests have been stood down and convicted, and scores of victims compensated and counselled.

Those who respect Cardinal Pell’s immense contributions to the church, the nation and cleaning up the Vatican’s financial shambles recognise that hysteria over events 30 and 40 years ago, already answered by him in detail, is diverting attention from matters that warrant more attention. Relatively little has been said, for example, about the inhuman treatment meted out by unholy nuns to Ballarat orphans, one of whom had his teeth yanked out by pliers, was tortured with electroshock therapy, locked in a dungeon and forced to fondle a priest as he heard confessions.

Contrary to what The Saturday Paper and James Carleton on the ABC reported, Cardinal Pell was never in charge of the diocese of Ballarat, his home town. He served there as a priest under Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who assigned him to the large, rambling St Alipius presbytery. He had no authority over any other priest. His time there, when he led the Aquinas Catholic teachers college, overlapped with several priests in the house, including the now-defrocked Gerald Ridsdale, a master at hiding his depravity. Journalist and former priest Paul Bongiorno, who once shared a presbytery with Ridsdale in Warrnambool, said last week that he knew nothing at that time about Ridsdale’s evil behaviour.

Fairfax Media has described the allegations levelled at Cardinal Pell recently as “explosive’’. Most were more than a decade old. He has answered them before. As auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, he made a mistake walking Ridsdale into court in May 1993. He did so reluctantly, at the request of Ridsdale’s lawyers and after his boss, Archbishop Frank Little in Melbourne, agreed he should. The cardinal has admitted it was a mistake. An act of solidarity towards a fellow priest, however undeserving, does not imply the bishop condoned criminality. Nor did the bishop, when contacted by Ridsdale’s nephew, David Ridsdale, in February 1993 have any logical reason to try to bribe the young man to keep quiet about his uncle abusing him. As the cardinal wrote when Mr Ridsdale made that allegation in 2002: “I had no reason when he telephoned me, or at any other time, to try to stop him going to the police because by early February I knew the offender was being questioned by the police ... I now know that David has admitted going to the police before February 3, 1993. Recently he conceded that he went anonymously in 1987 or 1988, and in interviews given in 1995 and 1997 he claimed he contacted the Victorian Police `Operation Paradox’ in 1992.’’

Cardinal Pell has already appeared before the royal commission in person, via telelink from Rome and before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry in 2013. The commission yesterday accepted his offer to front up again. Last year, his testimony was frank, apologising to victim John Ellis and taking responsibility for the Archdiocese of Sydney’s failures. Had Bishop Mulkearns been as forthcoming in the past much heartache might have been avoided.

From the Catholic Church to the Salvation Army, Knox Grammar School to orphanages, yoga ashrams and Jewish schools, the abuses revealed to the commission were deplorable. Assassinating the character of a strong leader who did more than most to tackle the problem can only be counter-productive to victims. Creating a false scapegoat will solve nothing.


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