At 2.45am in the dark, wet Roman morning, Australian cardinal George Pell heard some very welcome words: “That concludes your evidence. Thank you, you won’t be required any further.”
After four consecutive late nights and more than 16 hours of intense questioning at the Quirinale Hotel, the unprecedented spectacle of a senior Curia figure being asked questions in Rome about the Catholic Church’s handling of historical clerical sex abuse cases was over.
Pell, prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy and one of the nine-man "privy council" of cardinals who regularly advise Pope Francis, has been giving evidence this week to the Australian Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.
The 74-year-old cardinal claimed that, due to "heart-related" health problems, he was unable to travel to Australia. So the commission came to Rome instead, via a TV link-up in a downtown central hotel.
In evidence on Wednesday night and early Thursday, Pell reported that he had arranged for Pope Francis to be supplied with daily reports from the commission hearings. Like many others, Francis will probably want to know how the Australian church managed to so woefully mismanage a number of serial sex-abuser priests in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Pell has said that with regard to the diocese of Ballarat and the archdiocese of Melbourne, he was "kept in the dark" by his superiors, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns and Archbishop Frank Little. This week senior counsel for the commission Gail Furness called that claim "completely implausible".
“So we now have the education office deceiving you, and the archbishop deceiving you ... as well as Bishop Mulkearns and one or more of the consultors in the Ballarat diocese,” Furness said.
“That is correct,” Pell replied.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the four days of hearings has been the attendance of a 15-strong group of Ballarat and Melbourne survivors, people who were able to travel to Rome thanks to a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than €130,000. Several of the survivors gasped in horror on Monday night when Pell, talking about serial paedophile Fr Gerald Ridsdale, called it a "sad story" but one "that wasn't of much interest to me".
In his testimony on Wednesday night, the cardinal was at pains to qualify that remark, saying he had been “confused” and that he had “responded poorly”. On what was a difficult night for him, Pell was also asked about the claim by one survivor, David Ridsdale, nephew of Fr Gerald Ridsdale, that in response to a request for help in 1993, he had tried to bribe young Ridsdale.
“It’s completely implausible that I tried to bribe him... I knew that the police were already investigating his uncle... The only thing I did was that I walked his uncle into court on the day of his trial and I now realise that was a mistake,” he said.
The great conundrum represented by this hearing is Pell’s insistence that, despite the fact that a number of serial child sex abusers passed through both Ballarat and Melbourne during his time, he knew little or nothing about the ongoing abuse. One of the lawyers for the survivors suggested ironically that the only thing the cardinal remembered about many controversial cases was that there was “no mention of paedophilia”.
Speaking in relation to the claims of “BWF”, brother of a survivor, that Pell had refused to listen to his plea for help, another lawyer asked if there was a predisposition not to believe children. Pell vigorously denied the suggestion but he he did concede that “I didn’t understand then as completely as I do now... 40 years ago, we had a different attitude”.
Before the survivors return to Australia on Friday, they are expected to have a meeting with church officials at the Pontificial Commission For The Protection Of Minors. This comes after the group on Tuesday night requested a meeting with Pope Francis, a meeting that looks highly unlikely.
The Australian royal commission’s child sex abuse investigation, which began in 2013, is expected to end next year