Cardinal Pell Hits Back at Claims He Is "under Investigation" over Child Abuse Allegations

By Melissa Davey
The Guardian
February 19, 2016

Cardinal George Pell in 2014. His spokesperson says the allegations were ‘clearly designed to do maximum damage to the Cardinal and the Catholic Church’. Photograph: Jane Dempster/AAP

A top Vatican official, Cardinal George Pell, has strongly denied allegations of involvement in child sexual abuse, saying they are without foundation and utterly false after reports he is being investigated for “multiple offences” while serving in senior positions within the church in Australia.

Police would not comment on Friday night whether they are investigating Pell, who is Australia’s most senior Catholic and the head of the Vatican’s secretariat for the economy, over the allegations.

Pell has called for a public inquiry to be conducted into the Victorian police, saying the allegations were leaked to damage him.

News Corp Australia claims detectives from taskforce Sano have compiled a dossier containing allegations that Pell committed “multiple offences” when he was a priest in Ballarat, a town in the state’s west, and also when he was working as the archbishop of Melbourne.

Police also refused to answer general questions about whether they were investigating claims related to historical child sexual abuse related to the diocese of Ballarat or the archdiocese of Melbourne.

However, according to the report, the investigation by Sano detectives has been taking place for the past year. A dossier compiled by the detectives says Pell allegedly sexually abused minors “by both grooming and opportunity”.

“We can not comment on investigations into any individuals,” Victoria police told Guardian Australia on Friday night.

The allegations were “clearly designed to do maximum damage to the cardinal and the Catholic church and undermine the work of the [Australian] royal commission [into institutional responses to child sexual abuse],” a spokesman from the Vatican in Rome told the Guardian.

Pell is due to give evidence to the commission on 29 February via videolink from Rome. Pell was initially due to fly to Melbourne in December to give evidence in person, but he cancelled at the last minute, with his lawyers tendering medical documents to the commission which said Pell was too ill to fly.

The commission waited until February to see if Pell’s condition would improve enough for him to make the trip, but after Pell’s lawyers again tendered medical documents saying he was too ill, the commission chair, Justice Peter McClellan, agreed to allow Pell to give his evidence from Rome.

It prompted a very public campaign led by child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters to raise money to send victims of the church to Rome to witness Pell give his evidence. The campaign has raised almost $200,000.

Child sexual abuse victims have been waiting to hear Pell answer questions about the way the archdiocese of Melbourne responded to allegations of child sexual abuse, and about his alleged role in moving a paedophile priest in Ballarat between parishes while he was an assistant priest at Ballarat East from 1973 to 1983, a period when several Catholic priests sexually assaulted young boys.

A survivor of abuse, David Risdale, also alleged while giving evidence last year that Pell encouraged him to keep quiet about the abuse he had endured.

Cardinal Pell’s media director in Australia, Katrina Lee, told Sky News that she had contacted the cardinal in Rome and alerted him to the allegations.

“He decided he would issue a very strong statement saying that they were false, they are anonymous and he has called for an inquiry as to how they actually were leaked,” she said.

Police had not spoken to the cardinal, she said.

“His words to me were ‘isn’t that interesting timing’,” she said.

“He is very aware that Ballarat starts on Monday and he is aware that he is appearing the following week.”

Pell’s office has issued a statement denying the allegations.

The latest news comes as the church has faced a new wave of scrutiny for its handling of sex abuse cases and hits one of the most senior Vatican officials in Rome.

Cardinal Pell is seen within the Vatican as a key promoter of Pope Francis’s reform agenda, particularly on issues of financial transparency and the Vatican bank. In this regard, the staunchly conservative cardinal is an ally of the pope, even if the two are seen as being on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum.

Francis has traditionally viewed unsubstantiated accusations of sexual abuse with deep scepticism and even scorn, and has vigorously defended at least one senior cleric – Bishop Juan Barros of Chile – despite accusations that Barros helped cover up for a notorious paedophile priest in Chile. Those allegations have been denied and people who study the pope see his defense of Barros – he called Barros’s accusers “dumb” and “leftists” – as an indication that he will only act on accusations of wrongdoing once they have been proven in a civil or Vatican court.

The reaction inside the Vatican to the news was muted. One person close to the church said there was a view that Pell had long been a targeted figure in Australia, and that the report was just the latest in a series of attempts to put pressure on Pell, especially given the fact that he is due to testify soon.

The church was forced on the defensive last week following reports it allowed a controversial French monsignor to instruct newly-appointed bishops that they did not necessarily have to report accusations of sexual abuse to civil authorities if they were not mandated to do so under the law.

Peter Saunders, an outspoken critic of both the church’s handling of sexual abuse and Cardinal Pell, was recently forced to take a leave of absence from a Vatican committee that was established in 2014 to handle the church’s approach on sexual abuse.

Last year, Pell threatened to take legal action against Saunders after the abuse survivor said the cardinal lacked compassion for abuse victims and was almost a “sociopath”.

Francis on Thursday weighed in on the controversy over the church’s teachings on abuse when he said in a press conference that any bishop who transfers a priest after a case of paedophilia is discovered “is an unconscious man” and that “the best thing he can do is to present his resignation”.

Statement from the office of Cardinal George Pell

Cardinal Pell is due to give evidence to the royal commission in just over one week.

The timing of these leaks is clearly designed to do maximum damage to the Cardinal and the Catholic Church and undermines the work of the royal commission.

The allegations are without foundation and utterly false.

It is outrageous that these allegations have been brought to the Cardinal’s attention through a media leak. These undetailed allegations have not been raised with the Cardinal by the police and the false claims investigated by Justice Southwell have been ignored by the police for over 15 years, despite the very transparent way they were dealt with by the Cardinal and the Catholic church.

The Cardinal has called for a public inquiry into the leaking of these spurious claims by elements in the Victorian Police in a manner clearly designed to embarrass the Cardinal, in a case study where the historical failures of the Victorian Police have been the subject of substantial evidence. These types of unfair attacks diminish the work of those good officers of the police who are diligently working to bring justice to victims.

The Phillip Island allegations have been on the public record for nearly 15 years. The Southwell Report which exonerated Cardinal Pell has been in the public domain since 2002.

The Victorian police have taken no steps in all of that time to pursue the false allegations made, however the Cardinal certainly has no objection to them reviewing the materials that led Justice Southwell to exonerate him. The Cardinal is certain that the police will quickly reach the conclusion that the allegations are false.

The Victorian Police have never sought to interview him in relation to any allegations of child sexual abuse and apart from the false allegations investigated by Justice Southwell, the Cardinal knows of no claims or incidents which relate to him.

He strongly denies any wrongdoing. If the police wish to question him he will co-operate, as he has with each and every public inquiry.

In the meantime, the Cardinal understands that several media outlets have received confidential information leaked by someone within the Victorian Police. For elements of the police to publicly attack a witness in the same case study that has exposed serious police inaction and wrongdoing is outrageous and should be seen for what it is.

Given the serious nature of this conduct, the Cardinal has called for a public inquiry to be conducted in relation to the actions of those elements of the Victorian Police who are undermining the royal commission’s work.

The Cardinal calls on the premier and the police minister to immediately investigate the leaking of these baseless allegations.

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