'60 Minutes': Archbishop George Pell puts the record straight

'60 Minutes': Archbishop George Pell puts the record straight

Archbishop George Pell

We reproduce here for the record, the text of Archbishop George Pell's media statement of 3 June, the day after the '60 Minutes' TV program presented a distorted picture of his handling of clerical sex abuse cases in Victoria. (Also included is an extract from his follow-up media release of 16 June).

Before '60 Minutes' went to air, Dr Pell had signed a statutory declaration, denying the allegations made in the program.

The 60 Minutes program of 2 June once again poignantly highlighted the long-term damage involved in child sexual abuse. No one watching could fail to be moved by the sufferings of the victims and the evil of the perpetrators.

I firmly stand by what I said in my sworn statutory declaration and statement of 30 May - namely that I did not attempt to silence any victims or buy them off. I repeat here that the allegations that I attempted to silence anyone are totally unfounded and untrue.

I have no doubt David Ridsdale has suffered terribly because of his experiences, but his allegations about me are wrong.

In my view 60 Minutes deliberately set out to ignore all of the positive aspects of the Melbourne program which I introduced in 1996 to combat sexual abuse and to help the abuse victims personally and financially.

At this stage I should correct a misleading impression from the Sixty Minutes program.

When a person accepts Compensation from the Melbourne Archdiocese no confidentiality applies. To suggest this is hush money is absurd.

During my ambush on Sixty Minutes I was unclear and imprecise on the confidentiality requirements. I over-stated these limitations.

A person who chooses to accept an ex-gratia compensation offer is required to sign a release. That document contains no confidentiality restrictions and anyone who accepts a compensation payment is free to disclose the details if so desired. So how could this be construed as a cover up mechanism?

The basis of the accusations against the Church of Melbourne, and me personally, is that ex-gratia compensation payments from the Independent Compensation Panel are "hush money". They are nothing of the sort. Hush money was never paid.

The headlines in the papers are absolutely misleading. One of the foundations of the Melbourne three- part program against sex abuse was that each agency would have significant independence. These agencies worked independently of my advice and direction. At the end of an individual case they would make a recommendation to me which I undertook to accept unless I had good reasons to the contrary.

Panel

The rationale and procedures of the Compensation Panel were published in October 1996. They have always been available for examination - they have received little or no sustained criticism.

There are four members. Mr Chernov QC was the first chairman (now a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court), Mr Habsberger QC his successor was also appointed to the Victorian Supreme Court. Ms Sue Crennan QC is the present Chair.

The panel was designed to eliminate legal costs for the victims (lawyers were not necessary and rarely used) and once the Independent Commissioners' determination on the facts was given the Church did not oppose compensation to the victim.

It remains a good, fair system and is comparable with Australian statutory criminal injuries compensation schemes.

David Ridsdale

From Dr Pell's 16 June media release.

David Ridsdale was badly abused by his uncle, Gerald Ridsdale, then a Ballarat priest. I have always sympathised with his plight and this continues today. But unfortunately he has accused me of saying on 3 February 1993, "what will it take to keep you quiet?" so that he would not go to the police.

His memories of what was said and offered and when and why he went to the police vary enormously.

At different times he has accused me of offering him money, or a house and car. More recently, he said in a Sydney Morning Herald interview: "I did not accuse Pell of offering me anything."

As an assistant bishop in Melbourne I had no authority for the Ballarat Diocese and no capacity to buy a house or car for anyone.

I now know that David has admitted going to the police before 3 February 1993. Recently he conceded that he went anonymously in 1987 or 1988; and in interviews given in 1995 and 1997 he claimed he contacted the Victorian Police "Operation Paradox" in 1992.

I had no reason when he telephoned me at any other time to try to stop him going to the police because by early February I knew the offender was being questioned by the police, had heard rumours that family members and others had been violated, and had no reason to believe the offender innocent. The allegation of attempted bribery for David's silence is both mistaken and implausible. It did not happen.

Two young girls' Case

3 June statement continues.

Let me set out a few facts surrounding the tragic case of the two young girls abused by Fr O'Donnell.

The perpetrator O'Donnell was already in gaol when I met the parents. There had been wide publicity.

This meeting took place as part of a gathering at a Melbourne parish around 1997 to apologise and dialogue with victims and their families. There was no secret about the meeting. I attended another such meeting at the same parish.

One girl was offered ex-gratia compensation after her case had been investigated by the Independent Commissioner.

The Melbourne counselling agency has authorised significant payments for the medical conditions of one of the girls. These have been accepted.

In the letter of offer there is no reference to any requirement of secrecy and in the standard release there is no such reference or requirement also.

A person to whom an offer is made may choose to reject the compensation offer. In that event he or she is free to take proceedings to court. If that occurs, it is the intention of the compensation scheme that the rights of both the applicant and the Archdiocese remain unaffected by the previous discussions. Hence the need for confidentiality. At no stage, even during these confidential discussions, are people prevented from speaking about the abuse they suffered.

People have always been free to use this system or the courts. The letter pointed this out. The invitation to use the courts is no attempt to hush people, because a trial inevitably brings wide publicity.

The letter to family X which Carleton offered to me contained no reference to confidentiality. It is strange that Carleton did no acknowledge this.

Walsh

I remember the Walsh family from Ballarat East, but cannot clearly identify Robert Walsh. His story is a sad one.

His claim to have sent me eight letters is a mystery. We have checked our records for 12 months here in Sydney and can find no such letter. I wonder what address he used. He never wrote to Towards Healing in Sydney.

In cases like this I always respond. When the allegations do not touch my area of responsibility I refer them to the appropriate bishop or religious superior and nominate the agency which handles complaints. When they touch the Archdiocese of Sydney I refer them to our investigations agency.

Ballarat in the '70s

I was appointed junior assistant priest to Ballarat East - a busy parish with five Catholic schools and a Catholic teachers' college early in 1973. During those years there were always three or four priests in residence. I was never appointed as chaplain to St Alipius Boys' School and never worked there.

I was appointed Episcopal Vicar of Education, a non-executive part-time position representing the bishop on 25 March 1973. My main task was to chair the diocesan education board, an advisory group on policy.

In 1974 I was appointed Principal of the Aquinas Campus of the Institute of Catholic Education in Ballarat, a tertiary college of advanced education preparing teachers for Catholic schools. This was more than a fulltime job. I was in Melbourne on one or two days a week.

I had no direct role in the appointment or supervision of teachers.

Gerald Ridsdale was born in 1934. I was born in 1941. We were never in any seminary together. I was training at Werribee 1960-63 and Rome 1963-67. He was training at Werribee 1954-58; Genoa 1958; Ireland 1960-61.

I always strive to work amicably with all my brother priests. This included Gerald Ridsdale. We were never close friends and overlapped at St Alipius for about a year.

I accompanied him in mid-year 1993 to the Magistrates' Court. My sympathy was always with the victims and when I explained to his lawyer that I would insist on saying that Ridsdale had done great damage to his victims, the Church and himself, he declined to call me as a witness and asked me to accompany Ridsdale to court. I had little idea of the full extent and gravity of his crimes.

I did so in priestly solidarity. This was a mistake as it misled people about my basic sympathies for the victims, borne out by all my subsequent work to root out this evil.

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