Cardinal Pell: Church made ‘enormous mistakes’ over abuse

Pell’s evidence showed a man remarkably incurious about suspicions raised with him

It was in every sense a Vatican first. Around midnight in a downtown hotel in the centre of Rome, one of the most powerful cardinals in the Vatican took to the witness stand to defend his record over the handling of clerical sex abuse.

If it was not happening before your eyes, you would say that it was something made up by film director Nanni Moretti of Habemus Papem fame.

Australian cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy and one of the nine-man "Privy Council" of cardinals who advise Pope Francis, was the Vatican prelate in question. Summoned late last year to appear before the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, Pell (74) argued that, due to "heart-related" health problems, he could not travel to Australia.

The cardinal agreed to testify to the commission via a TV link-up, duly set up in the Quirinale Hotel.


The commission is addressing the question of how child sex abuse incidents and different serial sex abusing priests were handled in two parts of the Australian church where George Pell served as a priest, namely the town of Ballarat in Victoria and the archdiocese of Melbourne.

At stake is a simple question.

Given that a number of vicious, serial child sex abusers passed through both Ballarat and Melbourne during his time in each place, how can Pell claim he was unaware of the ongoing abuse?

His testimony was liberally sprinkled with defensive answers such as; “I don’t have any clear recollection”, “my level of recall is not sufficient to rule it out” or “it’s over 40 years ago and I just cannot remember”.

He avoided polemics, even sounding politically correct as he said: “I am not here to defend the indefensible. The church has been working to mend things...because we know that the church has really mucked things up...”

The TV link up to Sydney worked perfectly. Those of us in the Quirinale ballroom could see and hear the commission and the commission could see and hear Pell perfectly.

He sat at a small table on his own in the top corner of the room, having discreetly entered by a side entrance.

The lead counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, thanked him for having agreed to testify, pointing out that since his hearing was not taking place on Australian soil, the commission could not summon him to appear.

He was giving evidence as a “voluntary” witness, she said.

Furness then began a painstaking, detailed interrogation lasting four hours. She repeatedly asked the cardinal about the behaviour of notoriously abusive priests, particularly in Ballarat, his home town.

During his interrogation there were references to priests who liked to take kids out for a drive in the evening, for overnight camping or for a session of “skinny dipping”.

There was the case of the Christian brother, Ted Dowland, eventually jailed for abusing 20 boys at six schools over 14 years.

Much of the abuse carried out by Dowland happened at St Alipius primary school in Ballarat at a time when Pell served in his home parish in the 1970s.

Furness produced a wealth of documents, including complaints by concerned relatives and parents, which would suggest Dowland’s misdemeanours were very well known in the town.

The children used to refer to Dowland’s chosen ones as his Bum Buddies. Pell, however, had only a vague memory of Dowland, saying that it was difficult to “recall accurately” the happenings of 40 years ago.

He had heard the stories about how Dowland liked to photograph the boys in the showers and how he would take them “skinny dipping” at the end of year: “This was most unusual”, said the cardinal, “but nothing inappropriate ever emerged out of it”.

Likewise, he had not heard the alarm bells when priestly gossip informed him that another Ballarat priest, Gerald Ridsdale, liked to take boys for overnight stays. "I felt a basic priestly and human prudence about it but I wasn't worried. We weren't alert in those days in anything like the way we are today..."

Ridsdale, however, was wreaking havoc wherever he went, abusing nine children in the parish of Inglewood before going on to abuse 13 children at his next parish, Edenhope and then 30 more later in Melbourne.

Among those in the room last night listening to Cardinal Pell's testimony was David Ridsdale, nephew of Fr Gerald and himself a victim as a boy of his sex abusing uncle.

He told The Irish Times he had tried to report his uncle's behaviour to George Pell, at a time when the latter was an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne.

David Ridsdale had grown up in Ballarat with Pell; their two families knew one another well so he thought he would help out.

Pell is scheduled to give evidence to the Royal Commission three more times this week. The commission does not have the power to sanction. Its remit is to gather information with a view to making recommendations on legislation, policy and practises.