By Philip Pullella and Jane Wardell
ROME/SYDNEY, March 4 – Cardinal George Pell, under fire for his handling of sexual abuse of children by priests in Australia, on Thursday acknowledged “the evil that was done” and vowed to work with survivors to enact better protection measures.
Pell, who gave four days of evidence via video link to an Australian government commission, made the comments after a nearly two-hour meeting in a Rome hotel with about a dozen Australian survivors who had flown to Rome for the hearings.
Pell, now the Vatican’s treasurer, and the survivors met for nearly four times as long as scheduled. Both the cardinal and a spokesman for the survivors said it was highly emotional.
David Ridsdale, a survivor who alleges that in 1993 Pell tried to bribe him to keep quiet about abuse by Ridsdale’s now jailed priest uncle, said survivors were satisfied that the encounter took place on “a level playing field”.
Pell, who has denied the bribery accusation, told reporters that the goodness of the people of Ballarat, where much of the abuse took place in the 1970s when Pell was a priest there, “was not extinguished by the evil that was done”.
“One suicide is too many, too many … ,” Pell said. The hearings were attended by Anthony and Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were raped by the same priest. One of the daughters killed herself.
“I am committed to work with these people from Ballarat,” Pell said.
Pell testified from Rome because he said he could not travel home for health reasons. A crowdfunding campaign in Australia raised the money for the group to travel to Rome to be in the same room with Pell.
Throughout the hearings, Pell’s failure to remember the details of many individual cases angered both abuse victims who travelled to Rome and those who attended in Australia.
At the last, seven-hour hearing, which ended at 4 a.m. in Rome, Pell said he should have done more to stop the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, acknowledging that he had been told of at least one priest “misbehaving” with boys at an Australian school in the 1970s.
“With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more,” Pell said.
Given Pell’s high rank at the Vatican, the questioning over cases involving hundreds of children in Australia from the 1960s to the 1990s took on wider implications about the accountability of Church leaders.
There were audible gasps when Pell was asked during an exchange this week about abuse by Ridsdale’s uncle, Gerald Ridsdale — who was later convicted of 138 offences against 53 victims — and said: “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
Pell later said he regretted the comment, which was seized upon by victims and the Australian media as evidence of what they said was the Catholic Church’s uncaring attitude.
“I was very confused, I responded poorly … it was badly expressed,” he said.
Pell told the inquiry that the Church had made “enormous mistakes” and “catastrophic” choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and over-relying on counselling of priests to solve the problem.
He said he was deceived and lied to by superiors as a young priest in the 1970s.
The victims have called for a meeting with Pope Francis before they leave for Australia on Friday night.
The abuse crisis broke into the open in 2002, when it was revealed that U.S. bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar cover-ups have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.