Australia’s foremost Catholic has never been shy of controversy. This week, Cardinal George Pell was again the subject of scrutiny, as the latest round of hearings at the Ballarat royal commission into child sex abuse raised fresh concerns about Pell’s level of complicity in crimes committed decades ago.
Pell has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the systemic sexual abuse that occurred in the Ballarat area during his tenure at St Alipius Parish School between 1973 and 1983. During this time, Pell lived in the same presbytery house as vile sexual predator, and defrocked Christian Brother, Gerald Francis Ridsdale, who abused over 200 children across 20 years.
It is also unclear how much of a hand Pell had in transferring Ridsdale out of the Mortlake parish—the paedophile was repeatedly moved from church to church right across Australia, and re-offended at every location. Pell was present, according to the minutes of a September 1982 meeting of the Diocesan Consultors Committee, in which local clergy leaders decided to transfer Ridsdale, for reasons that it had become “necessary”. Many have argued that the Committee (including Pell) knew full well of Ridsdale’s transgressions and, in protecting the Church, abetted Ridsdale’s drive to rape and molest more and more Australian children.
Ridsdale testified via video link at the hearings last week, claiming Pell knew nothing about his crimes. However, several other survivors called out Pell in their testimonies, arguing it was “inconceivable” that he was oblivious to the abuse. Ridsdale’s nephew and victim, David Ridsdale, claimed he phoned Pell in February 1993 to inform him of his uncle’s abuses: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet,” Pell allegedly responded, a bribe he denies.
Footage of Pell accompanying Ridsdale “in a priestly act of solidarity” to his first appearance before criminal courts in 1993 has done little to temper the growing allegations.
If it’s true that Pell knew, and played a role in covering up these crimes of Ridsdale (or any other member of the active paedophile ring in the Ballarat area) the scandal reaches right to the top of an already beleaguered Catholic Church. Pell is currently the Vatican’s third-most-powerful official: last year, he was called up to the big league to whip the Holy See’s messy finances into shape.
Pell is rapidly becoming a headache for Francis. The Pope’s hand-appointed commissioner for the protection of minors, Peter Saunders, claimed earlier in the week in an interview with 60 minutes that Pell “has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness,” and in his approach to sex abuse victims, has a “cold-heartedness” and “almost sociopathic” lack of care.
“Pell has a history of playing down and denying the claims of sex abuse in the Church. During his tenure as Archbishop of Sydney, he was frequently blasted for using aggressive tactics to discourage victims’ lawsuits, prioritising the protection of the Church and its assets.”
According to Saunders, if Pell was allowed to remain in his position of power, he would be “…a massive, massive thorn in the side” of the papacy, particularly given the reformist Pope Francis’s agenda to lead a more humanistic, transparent Church, while righting the past wrongs done in its name.
Pell’s supporters—such as Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, right wing commentator Gerald Henderson, PM Tony Abbott, and most recently, seven of Australia’s most senior clergy—continue to defend the Cardinal’s character, highlighting his role as the first leader to formally reach out locally to victims of abuse. While his approach might be direct, they argue, and he has admittedly made mistakes, his compassion should be unquestioned. Andrew Bolt has repeatedly referred to the criticism of Pell as a modern day “witchhunt”.
Many others aren’t convinced. Pell has a history of playing down and denying the claims of sex abuse in the Church. During his tenure as Archbishop of Sydney, he was frequently blasted for using aggressive tactics to discourage victims’ lawsuits, prioritising the protection of the Church and its assets. As SBS recently put:
(Pell) has been accused of being more worried about the reputation and finances of the church than the welfare of his flock who were harmed by the very people meant to care for them
While Pell was instrumental in setting up the 1996 Melbourne Response—the Church’s first formal outreach initiative to sex abuse victims—it was later lambasted for not only lacking transparency, but treating victims threateningly and lacking in basic compassion. In 2012, he also argued that priests who hear confessions from child sex abusers are bound by the Catholic Seal of Confession, forbidden to forward information to the police.
The Cardinal responded this week with legal threats over Saunders’s “false and misleading” claims. Meanwhile, a recent change.org petition drew 55,000 signatures from Australians demanding his return to respond in person to the latest victim testimony. The commission has formally requested he return to Ballarat in late 2015 for the second round, which he has agreed to. When he does, there’ll be more than a few burning questions about what he knew—and what he did or didn’t do.