“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” said Cardinal George Pell of his response at the time sexual abuse allegations were first being aired against paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, the former Ballarat priest who has subsequently been convicted of 138 offences against children.
Pell’s comment, which came during his second day of testimony before the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, drew audible gasps from the audience and has angered survivors.
Later, a group of survivors told the assembled media that Pell’s comment “beggars belief”.The Cardinal’s long-awaited appearance before the Royal Commission has dominated headlines in past weeks. Pell, who appeared before the Commission via videolink from a luxury hotel in Rome, said on day one of questioning that he was not there to “defend the indefensible”.
He said the Catholic Church had made “enormous mistakes” and had “let people down” in its handling of child sexual abuse by priests. Pell added that the Church’s response to abuse allegations against Ridsdale had been “a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the church”.
However, he said, in those days, if a priest denied such activity, “I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial.” A successful crowdfunding campaign saw 14 abuse survivors travel to Rome to hear Pell’s testimony. The campaign was in part funded from proceeds of a Tim Minchin song Come Home (Cardinal Pell) that lambasted Pell’s failure to return to Australia to face the Commission.
In an earlier Commission hearing, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns said he did not know that raping girls and sodomising boys was a crime. The former Bishop of Ballarat presided over decades of clergy abuse in the Victorian regional city, and said he did not know how to address the problem.
Mulkearns, who spoke to the Commission from his Ballarat nursing home, said he regretted that he didn’t respond differently to paedophilia within the diocese, where he was bishop from 1971 to 1997.
“I certainly regret that I didn’t do it differently with … paedophilia. We had no idea, or I had no idea of the effects of the indecent [assaults] that took place,” Mulkearns said, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.
February also saw Father Robert Flaherty, a 72-year-old former Catholic priest, sentenced to two years and three weeks jail for sexual offences against teenage altar boys in the 1970s and 1980s. The offences took place in the former priest’s Mollymook home.
The Commission heard that the Catholic Church spent $77,000 on lawyers to defend Brother Ted Dowlan when he was accused of molesting school boys. Dowlan was jailed in 1996 for abusing 11 boys, and again in 2015 for abusing 20 boys. The Christian Brothers’ lawyers paid a private investigator to track down the victims to see if there was any ‘dirt’ that could be dug up.
And in more positive news, the NSW Government is set to abandon time limits on child abuse victims seeking to sue institutions. At present there is a three-year limitation period for victims to sue the State, a church or charity for compensation. Victoria already has similar laws. Queensland and the other States have no plans to abolish the old restrictions.