By Philip Pullella and Jane Wardell
ROME/SYDNEY, March 1 – Australian Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify on systemic sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, on Monday said senior clergy lied to him to cover up abuse in the 1970s.
The Vatican’s treasurer told Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse that he was deceived about why abusive priests were moved from parish to parish.
Pell’s testimony to the Australian inquiry into sexual abuse cases that occurred decades ago has taken on wider implications about the accountability of church leaders given his high rank within the church. The cardinal told reporters as he arrived at Rome’s Hotel Quirinale to give evidence that he had the full backing of Pope Francis.
Commissioner Peter McClellan pressed Pell repeatedly about his assertions that he knew nothing of incidents involving one priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale, who was later convicted of 138 offences against more than 50 children in Australia.
At the time that Ridsdale was being shifted from parish to parish, Pell was tasked with giving advice to the regional bishop on the appointments of priests to particular parishes.
Pell denied there was any discussion of Ridsdale being a paedophile at a meeting he attended in 1982 where it was discussed that Ridsdale should be moved again.
“So we’re in the position where you were deceived by the Bishop and Monsignor Fiscalini and someone, possibly the bishop, has lied to you. Is that right?” McClellan asked. Pell replied: “That is correct.”
There were audible gasps when at one point during a testy exchange over video link to Sydney, Pell said of Ridsdale’s abuse: “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”.
Ridsdale’s nephew, David Ridsdale, was among 15 abuse victims and supporters who travelled to Rome to see Pell give evidence after he said he was unable to travel to his native Australia because of heart problems.
“We are speaking of moral leaders of towns and cities and for them to have no interest in such behaviour seems remarkable,” David Ridsdale said.
“The Catholic Church was behaving with lies and deceit within their own structure, let alone outside that structure, and I think that has just been confirmed.”
Pell on Sunday told the Commission that the church 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.
Last year, Pell denied accusations made at Commission hearings that he had tried to bribe a victim to remain quiet, that he ignored another complaint and that he was complicit in the transfer of a paedophile priest.
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that U.S. bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar scandals have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.
The Australian hearing started on the same night that Spotlight, a film about newspaper reporters who uncovered systemic paedophilia in the Church in Boston, won the Academy Award for best picture.
“The ogres were not exclusively men in cassocks. Paedophilia does not necessarily derive from a vow of chastity,” the Vatican newspaper wrote of the win. “But it is by now clear that there were too many people in the Church who were more worried about the image of the institution than the gravity of the act.”