Pell; “I can’t nominate another Bishop whose actions are so grave and inexplicable”
The bishop of Ballarat between 1971 and 1997, Ronald Mulkearns, behaved reprehensibly towards victims of child sexual abuse and their concerned parents, Cardinal George Pell has told the commission. The commission heard that in reaction to one parent who came to him to say her children were being abused, Mulkearns “just stared”.
Furness asks Pell: “Do you thinkBishop Mulkearns is just one bad apple, as it were, within the Catholic Church as a Bishop by conducting himself in the way that he has up until this date?”
Pell: “Unfortunately, I would have to say that I can’t nominate another Bishop whose actions are so grave and inexplicable. There might be some but they don’t come to mind. His repeated refusal to act is, I think, absolutely extraordinary.”
Furness is taking Pell through the various abuses Gerald Ridsdale inflicted on children in Mortlake. She’s also taking him through the numerous people who knew a 14 year-old boy, Paul Levey, was living with Ridsdale. She’s also presenting him with documents that details complaints made about Ridsdale. Pell maintains he was unaware of all of this.
Furness: “You will see that [a parent] BAI rang the family doctor and asked him what he could tell about people who molested children. She doesn’t recall if she named Ridsdale but he was the only priest in Mortlake.
“Again, stopping there, we have now at this stage in Mortlake the family doctor being aware there was a problem with Ridsdale, a number of people knowing that there was a boy living in the presbytery with Ridsdale and Father Finnigan being aware that one set of parents was concerned about the welfare of their child around Ridsdale. Do you agree with that?”
Pell: “I do.”
Furness: “It is getting close to common knowledge, isn’t it?”
Pell: “Certainly those people knew. Could I just repeat something I have said partially before. Some time around 1980, I became principal of the institute of Catholic education which had 2000 students in Ballarat and Melbourne. It is not a small job. I was in Melbourne at least a couple of times a week, so I certainly wasn’t in with the life of the diocese like someone who would be working full-time in parishes.”
Furness ignores this disclaimer, and continues with her questioning.
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‘Cardinal, do you accept any responsibility at all?’
Gail Furness asks Cardinal Pell if accepts any responsibility for paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale being moved from parish to parish rather than reported to police.
Pell responds: “No, I do not.”
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Furness: “It was more than just leadership, wasn’t it? It was all parish priests, assistant priests, advisers, consultors, who all collectively failed to protect children who were living and under the care of the Church in that diocese in the ‘70s and ‘80s?”
Pell: “I think that is a vast and misleading overstatement. It goes far beyond any evidence where there is evidence that people knew of misbehaviour or they knew of a practical danger they should have acted. We are not permitted to go beyond the evidence.”
Furness: “Well, there’s evidence, isn’t there, that more than one parish priest knew of allegations against Ridsdale?”
Pell: “That is correct”.
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‘You don’t need a magic wand. You just need a group of adults who are responsible, don’t you?’
Furness is turning Pell to a statement from an abuse survivor, Paul Levey. Paul is at the commission hearing in Rome watching Pell give his evidence.
Furness tells Pell that Levey was “sexually abused all the time just about every day” at the Mortlake parish.
Furness: “He describes he always slept in paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale’s room and there was a housekeeper and always people coming and going, including people having parish meetings at the presbytery. And then he refers to living at the presbytery in Mortlake.”
Pell: “I was director of the Aquinas campus and at that stage, I was principal of the entire institute of Catholic education.”
Furness: “If you had discovered that a 14-year-old child was living in a presbytery, you would have done what you could to take the child out, wouldn’t you?
Pell: “Well, before that I would certainly have wanted to know why the child was there, and what precautions were in place and whether this was something that was temporary or permanent.”
Furness: “Now, if you had known that there had been complaints about Ridsdale of a sexual nature before the child was placed in the presbytery, you would never have put that child there, would you?”
Pell: “Certainly not.”
Furness: “And once you had discovered that the child was there, it would be wrong to do anything other than take the child out. Isn’t that right?”
Pell: “That recommendation that the child be taken out if it wasn’t in my power to do so.”
Furness: “You would do more than recommend, Cardinal, wouldn’t you?”
Pell: “I would do whatever was in my power in such hypothetical situations. I think we are all surrounded by real constraints and sometimes we’re able to say this must be done, sometimes we’re able to ensure that it is done. Sometimes such a recommendation would be rejected and you would have to appeal to another party. Because something is wrong you can’t wave a magic wand and correct the situation easily in every situation.”
Furness: “We’re talking about the safety of children, Cardinal. You don’t need a magic wand. You just need a group of adults who are responsible, don’t you?”
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Furness is going back to comments made by Pell that his first inclination back in the 1970s would be to accept the word of the priest who denied an allegation of child sexual abuse, rather than to believe a victim.
Pell confirms: “I would have said my first instinct would have been to accept the protestation of innocence – innocence from the priest, until it was disproven. But that I, especially [from] my experience as a bishop, I came to see this was quite unreliable criteria.
Furness: My recollection certainly, Cardinal, is that you put forward a period of time up to the mid-to late 80s as when these views were views held by the Church.
Pell: “Well, I wouldn’t have described them as views held [by] the church. I would have been talking about my view and the view of a number of the other priests. I certainly acknowledge that from the middle 80s we got much greater clarity on these things. But all along there was – there should have been a presumption that we went with the truth. Your starting point might have been – or is different now. But the obligation to truth is exactly the same.”
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The commission resumes
We’re back following the morning adjournment.
Questioning about notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale is continuing. Ridsdale is now in jail, having committed hundreds of offences against children. By the time Pell says he became aware of Ridsdale’s abusing, in the 1990s, Pell was no longer working alongside him.
By then, Pell says, Ridsdale had “significant dementia”.
“The poor man … after a couple of years he couldn’t even remember what job he had. So it was – it went from significant dementia to radical, radical dementia over the two or three years I was with him. So it was difficult to say I had a coherent conversation with him.”
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Leonie Sheedy, head of the Care Leavers Australia Network for child sexual abuse survivors, says she found Pell’s evidence this morning “disgraceful”.
“Saying that priests were removed from parishes because they were restless? I was just so shocked,” she says.
Pell’s comments that abuse allegations “wasn’t of much interest” to him were distressing, Sheedy said.
“It just shows the lack of empathy and understanding. The audience were just… just gobsmacked. We were shocked.”
She praised Furness and McClellan for their thorough line of questioning.
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Some reactions to an explosive morning of evidence.
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The commission is taking a short break after an extraordinary morning of evidence from Cardinal George Pell. To recap;
- Pell told the commission that the widespread child abuse at the hands of pedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, was “a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”. His comments led to gasps among some of those attending the hearing in Sydney.
- The head of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, Justice Peter McClellan, has pressed Pell on how it was he did not know about the abuse. Given he was one of the consultors appointed to give advice to the then bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, and the majority consultors seemed to know Ridsdale was abusing children, McClellan said it was a great deception that Pell was not kept in the loop.
- Pell told the commission that the church works “within a framework of Christian moral teaching” and discussion of “the secret faults of others”, including child abuse, was not encouraged.
- Counsel assisting, Gail Furness, pressed Pell on why Ridsdale was moved from parish to parish, and what he knew of the reasons behind these moves. She also said it was common knowledge among parents, teachers, children and senior religious staff that Ridsdale was abusing, and asked how it was this knowledge did not reach Pell, an assistant priest and consultor.
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Counsel assisting, Gail Furness, is not letting Pell off on his comments that he did share in the widespread knowledge that Gerald Ridsdale was abusing children within Ballarat parishes. Especially given he was a link between the parish and senior figures in his role as consultor.
Furness is trying to understand how that was the case Pell did not know. Her line of questioning is clearly frustrating Pell, who is growing impatient and who encouraged Furness to read her documents.
Furness: “And in your own language, you were the essential link between the bishop and the parents,teacher, children and principals of Catholic schools?”
Pell: “I find that an extraordinary claim in the light of the discussion that we had yesterday where we did a detailed study of the passage where it was pointed out very clearly that the Episcopal Vicar was one part of an essential linking between the bishop and the educational institutions and that linkage was a religious linkage.”
Furness: “Ultimately, it will be a matter for commissioners as to decide the meaning of your words in that document,Cardinal. Can I turn now to-
Pell: Could I suggest that for both of us the obligation is to study the words in the document and to conclude from that?”
Furness: “Thank you, Cardinal. I suspect some lawyers have an understanding of that concept.”
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McClellan: ‘We have to determine a very serious issue’
Justice Peter McClellan is interrogating Pell on why senior figures in the church would have known that Gerald Ridsdale, who committed more than 130 offences against children as young as four between the 1960s and 1980s, would have known about his abuse while Pell did not.
McClellan says; “I don’t understand why the bishop would choose to deceive you or lie to you, a member of his consultors, about Ridsdale’s behaviour when it was common knowledge in at least two of the parishes. Given that it was common knowledge amongst many people why would he choose to deceive you?”
Pell: “Because he would realise that I didn’t know and he did not want me to share in his culpability and also I think he would not have wanted to mention it to me and some – at least some other members of the consultors because we were – at the very minimum we would have asked questions about the propriety of such a practice.”
McClellan: “What is wrong with that? That was your job, wasn’t it?”
Pell: “I’m trying to explain why he didn’t do it. Of course it was our job and almost certainly it would have been done.”
McClellan: “You say you speak of the bishop’s culpability. If we were to come to the view that you did know, you would be culpable too, wouldn’t you?”
Pell: “That’s correct.”
McClellan: So we have – we have to determine a very serious issue, don’t we?”
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