Cardinal Pell's candid responses to Victorian Parliament grilling

Cardinal Pell's candid responses to Victorian Parliament grilling

Peter Westmore

Cardinal George Pell has strongly contested claims that he failed to act on allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy, pointing to meetings he held with victims and their families shortly after becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, and his role in immediately establishing procedures for dealing with allegations of sex abuse by clergy and religious.

Facing hostile questioning from members of the Victorian Parliament's Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Organisations, Cardinal Pell said repeatedly that he was "fully apologetic and absolutely sorry" for the abuse children suffered at the hands of clergy.

The cross-examination of Cardinal Pell lasted about four hours.

He frankly admitted that during the 1970s and 1980s, as more and more allegations of sexual abuse came to light, the Catholic Church continued to mishandle the issue.

Predecessor

He said that his predecessor as archbishop of Melbourne, Archbishop Sir Frank Little, did cover up offences in one instance and spoke to nobody about the offending individual.

He added that in his years as an auxiliary bishop, he had not once been spoken to by Archbishop Little about the issue, nor was he aware that the latter had ever spoken to any others.

Evidence at the inquiry showed that the former archbishop had been aware that one priest had sexually abused children, but had done nothing about it.

"Yes, Archbishop Little did cover up but he inherited a situation where there were no protocols and no procedures, and for some strange reason he never spoke to anybody about it," Cardinal Pell said.

In other evidence, Cardinal Pell said he discovered "in the last few weeks" that former Ballarat bishop, Ronald Mulkearns, had destroyed documents relating to allegations of sexual abuse in his diocese.

Cardinal Pell repeatedly clashed with members of the inquiry over suggestions that he had personally covered up sexual abuse, or that the Vatican had covered up sexual abuse by clergy in Australia, or that the Church's policy on celibacy was responsible for the failures in the Church's response.

Cardinal Pell also had to deal with the common misconception that as the Archbishop of Sydney and Australia's only serving cardinal, he is responsible for the Church across the country. He pointed out that his authority is exercised in the Archdiocese of Sydney, and that each diocesan bishop is responsible not to an archbishop or cardinal, but directly to the Holy See in Rome.

Further, he pointed out that the authority of a bishop over religious orders in his diocese is often limited. For example, the foundress of the Sisters of St Joseph, St Mary MacKillop, had clashed with several Australian bishops over the control they tried to exercise over her order, and when she appealed to the Holy See, Rome had supported her.

Cardinal Pell denied that there was a culture of abuse in the church. "I think the bigger fault was that nobody would talk about it, nobody would mention it," he suggested.

"I don't think many, if any, persons in the leadership of the Catholic Church knew what a horrendous widespread mess we were sitting on."

He said he agreed "that we've been slow to address the anguish of the victims and dealt with it very imperfectly."

However, he produced statistics showing that the number of allegations against clergy and religious had peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, declined in the 1990s and fell significantly in the first decade of the 21st century.

Few allegations have been made relating to the activities of priests in recent years, a consequence of greater awareness of the problem, the processes which had been put in place to deal with allegations of sexual abuse, improved selection methods for clergy and better seminary formation.

ABC role

One disconcerting aspect of Cardinal Pell's appearance before the inquiry was the role of an ABC journalist in vetting the people who were permitted into the public gallery.

I queued for admission to the public gallery for about 90 minutes before the hearing, but others who arrived after me, including well known critics of Cardinal Pell, were escorted to the top of the queue by this ABC journalist.

Not surprisingly, those in the public gallery were clearly hostile to the Cardinal.

The inquiry had previously taken evidence from victims of child sexual abuse and their families, as well as leaders of a number of churches and other organisations. A common thread in the evidence given was that until the 1990s, allegations of sexual abuse of children were routinely covered up or ignored. The Catholic Church was not the sole offender in this regard.

Even after this, organisations dealing with children were often slow to recognise the dire consequences of sexual abuse which blighted the lives of victims and their families.

The report of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry will be tabled in September. Among its recommendations are expected to be mandatory reporting to police of any allegations of sexual abuse of children.

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