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Australian Cardinal George Pell Says: “pedophile’s abuse not of much interest to me”
Cardinal George Pell’s future hangs in the balance after he was warned he could be seen as culpable by the child abuse royal commission, and admitting the “sad story” of a pedophile priest “wasn’t of much interest to me”
Giving evidence from Rome on the handling of the case of serial pedophile Gerald Ridsdale, Cardinal Pell drew gasps from observers with his comments. Commission members described Cardinal Pell’s evidence as at times “implausible” and “surprising”.
With a papal decision on whether to extend Cardinal Pell’s tenure in control of the Vatican’s finances due in June, Australia’s most senior Catholic official arrived to give evidence to the commission yesterday, saying he had the “full backing of the Pope”.
After a day spent defending his actions during four church meetings in which Ridsdale, a known pedophile priest, was repeatedly moved between parishes during 1977-82, senior sources in the church told The Australian opinion might have shifted against Cardinal Pell.
Giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse by videolink from Rome, Cardinal Pell insisted he did not then know Ridsdale was a serial pedophile. His evidence contrasts with that of another priest present at some of the meetings, Father Bill Melican, who has told the commission Ridsdale was moved “to keep him away from children” and this was known to those involved at the time.
By 1982, the commission heard, people living in three separate parishes, as well as the police, priests, senior church officials and the then bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, all knew about Ridsdale’s offending.
Documents tendered to the commission show Cardinal Pell was among the Victorian diocese’s council of consultors who met that year when Bishop Mulkearns told them “it had become necessary for Father Gerald Ridsdale to move” again.
Cardinal Pell told the commission: “I don’t have a clear recollection of this meeting at all, except to the effect that pedophilia was never mentioned.”
Senior counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness SC said: “I suggest, Cardinal, that it is implausible that those other consultors at the meeting, including yourself, were not told why it had become necessary.”
Cardinal Pell replied: “It would only be implausible if there was evidence that they had been told.”
He said Bishop Mulkearns might have lied about the reasons for wanting to move Ridsdale, who was later jailed for abusing dozens of children, because “he did not want me to share in his culpability”.
“If we were to come to the view that you did know, you would be culpable too, wouldn’t you?” asked commission chairman Peter McClellan.
“That’s correct,” Cardinal Pell replied.
“So we have to determine a very serious issue, don’t we?” Justice McClellan said.
Given the “spreading knowledge” throughout the diocese, “do you think that … it might be surprising that you didn’t hear anything at all?” the commission chair asked in a separate exchange.
“Not necessarily,” Cardinal Pell replied.
While he accepted that Ridsdale was moved because he was a pedophile, the cardinal did not accept responsibility for this decision. “I don’t know whether it was common knowledge or not,” Cardinal Pell said. “It’s a sad story but it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
At the time, he was busy managing the church’s education provision outside his role as a parish priest. “I had no reason to turn my mind to the evils Ridsdale had perpetrated,” he said.
There was a moment of shocked silence after Cardinal Pell’s statement before abuse survivors, who had gathered in the room to hear the evidence, laughed in derision and gasped.
In response to questions about why Paul Levey, then 14, was sleeping in Ridsdale’s room in a presbytery in the Mortlake parish, Pell said: “Because something is wrong you can’t wave a magic wand and correct the situation easily in every situation.”
Ms Furness retorted: “We’re talking about the safety of children, Cardinal. You don’t need a magic wand. You just need a group of adults who are responsible, don’t you?”
The commission’s report on the church’s handling of child abuse in Ballarat is expected to be published within months. Today Cardinal Pell is likely to face questioning over his knowledge of abusive priests after he became a bishop in Melbourne in 1987.
Earlier this week, under questioning at the commission, Cardinal Pell conceded he suspected others in the church may have been committing child abuse as far back as 1973.
Last month, Pope Francis described the sexual abuse of children as a “monstrosity” and said church officials who moved pedophile priests between parishes should “present their resignation”.