Cardinal George Pell has said he should have done more about rumours of child abuse in the 1970s.
Giving evidence to the Australian royal commission on child abuse, Cardinal Pell said he had heard stories about Brother Ted Dowlan, a Christian Brother who taught at St Patrick’s College, but assumed the Brothers were dealing with them.
The cardinal was at that time the episcopal vicar for education in the Diocese of Ballarat, which included St Patrick’s.
Dowlan was removed from the school after admitting that he had abused children. He went on to abuse children at a number of other schools and has since been jailed twice.
Speaking via video link from Rome, the cardinal said there were “unfortunate rumours” about Dowlan relating to “possibly excessive discipline and violence” as well as sexual activity. “It was always vague and unspecific,” he added.
Cardinal Pell told the commission’s Peter McClellan: “My whole assumption was that the Brothers would be dealing adequately with the matter.
“I was not aware then of their poor record, which I learnt about later, in dealing with such things. I presumed that when they shifted him, they would have also arranged for some appropriate help.”
Cardinal Pell also faced questioning about Peter Searson, a former priest who was accused of sexual and physical abuse against children when the cardinal was an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne.
“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,” the cardinal said.
“In retrospect, I might have been a bit more pushy with all the parties involved.”
He claimed that the Catholic Education Office had concealed the extent of Searson’s offences from him because they feared that “I would have asked all sorts of inconvenient questions”.
This was the third day of four on which Cardinal Pell is giving testimony to the commission. Yesterday he told the commission it was “complete nonsense” to suggest he had known about the offences committed by Gerald Ridsdale, a former priest who committed more than 130 offences against young boys while working as a chaplain at another Ballarat school.
Cardinal Pell’s testimony has attracted intense media interest in Australia. He is not accused of any crimes, but he has come under pressure for his response to allegations in the 1970s and 80s.
Sexual abuse survivors have travelled to Rome to watch the cardinal give evidence. They have requested a meeting with Pope Francis, but say that so far they have not had a reply.
In a statement, Cardinal Pell offered to meet small groups of survivors, without lawyers or media present, on Thursday. Representatives of the survivors had previously said they were no longer interested in speaking to the cardinal, but said they would meet him on “a level playing field”.
But they said that meeting Pope Francis was more important to them. “Pell has made it very clear he does not have the ability, the power or the interest… so we need to speak to the boss,” abuse victim David Ridsdale said.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Pell appeared to have lost one of his staunchest defenders this week when Andrew Bolt, a prominent Australian commentator who had written in his defence, said that the cardinal was either a “liar” or “dangerously indifferent to his responsibilities”.
Bolt had previously criticised the “witch-hunt” against Cardinal Pell and had been scheduled to interview him for Australian television. Since making criticisms of the cardinal, he has appeared to backtrack slightly, but it is not clear whether the interview – scheduled for Thursday – will go ahead.
Speaking on Australian television, Bolt said he thought he owed Cardinal Pell an apology.
“I think where the exaggeration has occurred is in thinking that he knows of abuse and he doesn’t care. And that fits a stereotype,” he added.