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Here's What the Royal Commission Into Sexual Abuse Has Learned About George Pell

Despite being the Archbishop of Sydney and moving paedophile priests around and living in the same house as a convicted paedophile priest, Cardinal Pell claims he knew nothing.
March 3, 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Ben Thomson

"When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying "I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it."— Matthew 27:24

About 12 hours after Cardinal George Pell began giving testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, a film called Spotlight, about journalists uncovering systemic child abuse within the Catholic Church, picked up the Best Picture at the Oscars. The contrast was stark. The silly, self-congratulatory movie ceremony was, by virtue awarding a gold trinket, ensuring that a wider number of people would learn about the age-old criminal activities that have repeatedly occurred within the Church.

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Meanwhile Pell, the former Archbishop of Sydney and Archdiocese of Melbourne and current Vatican Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy—a man who holds a position that defines him as a moral leader—was busy defending himself against claims that he'd done the opposite.

From a hotel room in Rome, Pell (who is reportedly too sick to travel to Australia for the commission) faced questions via video link about what he knew and when he knew it. For years, Pell has denied he knew about the abuse going on around him, including acts committed by former priest Gerald Ridsdale. Ridsdale was a chaplain at numerous schools and hospitals, was once Pell's housemate, and is currently serving a prison sentence after being pleading guilty to 29 counts of sexual assault.

Cardinal Pell has given evidence to commission that can largely be summed up like this: Pell had absolutely no idea that any abuse was taking place.

In May 2015, Gerald Ridsdale's nephew David told the commission how he had been abused by his uncle from age 11. In February of 1993, David claimed he'd phoned Pell to tell him about the abuse, because "he was the only human being in the church whom I believed was still a friend and who I could trust."

Pell, he claimed, became angry: "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet." David responded, "Fuck you, George, and everything you stand for." And then he hung up.

Pell denies this ever happened.

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This week, Cardinal Pell has given evidence to commission that can largely be summed up like this: Pell had absolutely no idea that any abuse was taking place, despite holding numerous positions of authority, and despite being involved in the decisions to move priests from one post to another when the situation demanded. All of this despite the fact he literally lived in the same house as a convicted paedophile priest.

In essence, Pell told the commission that the abuse of scores of children was everyone's fault but his. Information had been withheld from him, he said. Bishop Mulkearns had refused to tell him the truth. Why? "He would realise I didn't know," Pell said, "and did not want me to share in his culpability."

If Pell's insight into Mulkearns' thought process is correct, then it is a rare instance of someone in authority acting swiftly to protect someone in danger. If only that instinct was directed elsewhere.

Several times Pell has depicted himself as a sort of rebel, but says he was deceived by those who didn't want the status quo disturbed. "They quickly realised I was not cut from the same cloth," he said. "They would have been fearful that I would have asked all sorts of inconvenient questions if I'd been better briefed."

It's a claim of anti-establishment truth-seeking that doesn't quite gel with the cultivated image of a man who is committed to the Catholic Church as an ancient institution. Nor with testimony given by former St Patrick's College student Timothy Green, who told the commission last May that when he was a student, he said to Pell: "We've got to do something about what's going on at St Pat's."

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"What do you mean?" Pell asked Green. "Brother Dowlan is touching little boys," replied Green. "Don't be ridiculous," Pell said, and walked away.

Pell would later tell the Commission that he did, in fact, know about Dowlan, but that the reports were "vague and unspecific." Perhaps they would have become less vague and more specific if he hadn't kept walking off.

When Dowlan admitted to abusing boys under his care, he was not excommunicated or arrested, but moved to a different school. Dowlan would continue to abuse children at these schools over the next 14 years. Pell says he did not report Dowlan to the Church or the police because he assumed Dowlan would simply seek help for the problem on his own.

In admitting his lack of interest, Pell has given the Commission the real truth it was designed to uncover.

Pell had an even stranger excuse in store when asked about Father Peter Searson. Searson sexually abused children, physically assaulted them, and pointed knives at them . Children were—not surprisingly—terrified of Father Searson.

In one of the more bizarre exchanges, Pell was asked if he knew Searson had once stabbed a bird with a screwdriver in front of children. "Yes," replied Pell, adding, "but I don't know if the bird was already dead."

In 1989, Pell was approached by parents who were concerned about Searson. "I don't think I was obliged to do anything more than I did, because I took it to the archbishop and asked what should be done," he said, presenting a view not really compatible with a Martin Luther-type rabble-rouser who was "not cut from the same cloth."

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Gerald Ridsdale, meanwhile, was being busily moved from parish to parish. It was unusual for a priest to be moved so frequently but Pell says there was little investigation into why this might be. "There would have been some generalised explanation," he said. Asked if he accepted any responsibility for Ridsdale's constant moves, Pell replied, "No, I don't."

The most telling testimony came on Tuesday. Pell said the crimes of Ridsdale were a "sad story", but "not of much interest to me".

If we are to accept the idea that Pell managed to elude any and all knowledge about the well-documented abuse happening all around him, and even if all the testimony about Pell being repeatedly informed of it is incorrect, it matters very little. By Pell's own admission, he was not interested.

Everything from his accompanying of Ridsdale to court in the 1990s, to his claims that the fault lies solely with the individual , presents the deeper problem. Pell could be telling the truth about all of it. Every word he said could be correct and true, and he could have been made ignorant of any problems that may disrupt the status quo. But in admitting his lack of interest, Pell has given the Commission the real truth it was designed to uncover.

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