The Australian media has been in a frenzy this week as the country’s most senior Catholic cleric, and head of Vatican finances, Cardinal George Pell, testified to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
For his supporters he is a man of principles and integrity, but for his critics, Pell was culpably negligent in failing to act on reports of abominable sexual abuse by priests in the dioceses of Ballarat and Melbourne.
Though no charges have been laid against him, in the court of public opinion he is a guilty man. As Pell wrapped up his testimony via video-link in Rome’s Hotel Quirinale, almost all of the major Australian mastheads condemned him for his gross inaction and mocked his supposed “ignorance” of the abuse. Commentators demanded his resignation and abuse victims decried his lack of compassion.
Yet after reading the transcripts of Pell’s 19 ½ hours in the witness box, it strikes me there are several key issues that have not received sufficient attention.
I am not arguing for Pell’s innocence or guilt. But the proceedings of the Commission are supposed to be fair – the enquiry, after all, should aim at justice.
1. Pell’s claims that he was unaware of some cases of abuse is not as incredible as some suggest. The Commission and the media have scoffed at this, calling it “implausible” and his narrative of events “extraordinary”. Nevertheless, the Commission has received significant evidence over the past year supporting Pell’s contention that chaos and deception were rife in the administration of Ballarat and Melbourne from the 1970s to early 1990s.
Take the case of notorious paedophile priest Gerard Ridsdale. Various members of the clergy, present and past have said they knew nothing of Ridsdale’s offending. In fact , a well-known Australian political journalist, Paul Bongiorno, is a former priest who lived in with Ridsdale and Pell. He opened up about his experience last year:
I had no idea what he was up to. And when people look at me quizzically, I say let me tell you this. There are married men and women now who sleep with their husbands and wives and don’t know that their husband or wife is having an affair. Let me tell you that Ridsdale never came to the presbytery in Warrnambool and said, ‘Guess how many boys I’ve raped today’.They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me. And when it came out after I had left the priesthood, I was shocked and I was ashamed.
The Australian journalist Tess Livingstone comments in her biography George Pell that it was not just the Cardinal who says he was surprised to hear of Ridsdale’s offending: “other priests, and former priests, who shared presbyteries with Ridsdale say the same thing. So do many parishioners from various parishes where he served”.
Gail Furness, the steely Australian barrister assisting the Commissioner in cross-examination, made much of the claim that Ridsdale’s offending was “common knowledge” and the subject of “rumours”. Yet as a friend of mine who attended the hearings in Rome observed, the assertion seems to imply that it is not just that Pell was guilty, but that there was a systemic guilt in the Ballarat diocese.
2. In the 1980s and 1990s, Pell was deeply unpopular amongst many of his fellow priests. They were intimidated by his bluntness, his loyalty to Rome, and his reforms in the Melbourne seminary. It is completely plausible that he had no inside information on scandalous abuse because he had been excluded from the inner circle of the clergy who ran the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Sir Frank Little, the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1974 to 1996 was unhappy with Pell’s appointment as an auxiliary bishop and often shut him out of decisions. When asked about Pell’s appointment, Little tersely replied: “others do the choosing”. As Livingstone recounts, “It was no secret that the two men…were often at odds over the Church’s direction, especially in relation to issues like seminary formation, school Catechetics, and the devolution of some of the traditional roles of parish priests”.
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