The Holy See has been shaken in the last week by an unseemly public row between Australian cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis's closest advisers, and the English clerical sex abuse activist, Peter Saunders, who is also a member of the Holy See's protection of minors commission.
In an interview with Australian TV programme, 60 Minutes, last week, Mr Saunders issued a forthright attack on Cardinal Pell, suggesting he had been less than transparent in his handling of defrocked paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.
Between 1993 and 2013, Ridsdale was found guilty of child sexual abuse and indecent assault offences in the 1960s and 1970s against small children.
Catalogue of denials
Speaking of Cardinal Pell, Mr Saunders said: “I personally think that his position is untenable, because he has now a catalogue of denials . . . He has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness, almost sociopathic . . . I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.”
Cardinal Pell declined an invitation to take part in the 60 Minutes programme but he did react to Mr Saunders's allegations, suggesting he might take legal action against both Mr Saunders and the programme. Australian media reports claim a lawyer representing Cardinal Pell has called on Mr Saunders to withdraw his "false allegations".
Attorney Richard Leder also said Mr Saunders’s comments were “either uninformed as to the relevant history, or were deliberately selective”.
The lawyer's letter reminded Mr Saunders that Cardinal Pell had twice testified before a royal commission investigating sexual abuse in Australia and had "refuted on oath the various allegations which you chose to repeat . . ."
In a statement issued after the programme, a spokesman for the cardinal said: “The false and misleading claims against his eminence are outrageous. From his earliest actions as an archbishop, Cardinal Pell has taken a strong stand against child sexual abuse.
“There is no excuse for broadcasting incorrect and prejudicial material. The cardinal is left with no alternative but to consult with his legal advisers.”
Answering questions from reporters last week, senior papal spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi appeared to downplay Mr Saunders's allegations, saying they had been delivered in a personal capacity and not as a member of the protection of minors commission. Furthermore, Fr Lombardi said Cardinal Pell had always responded "promptly and carefully" to questions posed by the "competent Australian authorities".
Allegations against Cardinal Pell, the man to whom Pope Francis has entrusted an overhaul of the Vatican's financial affairs, have pursued him for much of the last 20 years.
Truck firm analogy
Last year, however, in evidence to the
Royal Commission on Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
in Australia, the cardinal hardly helped his cause when he said the church should be no more responsible for the abuse of children than a trucking company was responsible for a driver who picked up and molested a woman while on the road. “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate . . . [for] the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”