Cardinal George Pell has expressed his “surprise” at newly released findings of an Australian investigation, which concluded that the cardinal was aware of sexual abuse by clerics in the 1970s and 80s, and failed to act.
In 2017, Australia’s Royal Commission released a report on sexual abuse of minors in the country, the result of a five-year enquiry into the behaviour and responsibility of institutions including the Church. Sections of the report relating to Cardinal Pell were redacted until the conclusion of criminal legal proceedings against the cardinal.
The redacted portions were released on May 6.
In the newly available material, the commission found that Pell knew about the abusive activities of two priests during his own years as a priest, and that he failed to act to stop them.
On Thursday, Pell said through a spokesperson that the commission’s conclusions about him were “not supported by evidence.”
Pell gave evidence to the commission in 2016 via video link from Rome. During his testimony, he denied failing to act against known sexual abusers in the clergy. Pell specifically denied that while he was a priest in Ballarat in the 1970s and 80s, he had any awareness of the actions of then-Father Gerald Ridsdale, a serial abuser from the same diocese.
The Royal Commission concluded that, as a member of Bishop Ronald Mulkearns’ college of priest consulters in the diocese, Pell would have been made aware of allegations of abuse against Ridsdale during discussions about the priest’s transfers between assignments in 1977 and 1982.
But Pell told the commission that he and the other consulters had been deceived by Mulkearns and were unaware of Ridsdale’s crimes until years later.
“The Consultors who gave evidence on the meetings in 1977 and 1982 either said they did not learn of Ridsdale’s offending against children until much later or they had no recollection of what was discussed. None said they were made aware of Ridsdale’s offending at these meetings,” Pell said in a statement released through a spokesperson late Wednesday evening.
In a 2017 statement, Pell said “I would never have condoned or participated in a decision to transfer Ridsdale in the knowledge that he had abused children, and I did not do so.”
The commission rejected Pell’s testimony, and found that it “ought to have been obvious” why Ridsdale was being transferred from one assignment to another.
“We are satisfied Bishop Mulkearns gave reasons for it being necessary to move Ridsdale. We are satisfied that he referred to homosexuality at the meeting, in the context of giving reasons for Ridsdale’s move,” the report found. “However, we are not satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns left the explanation there, as Cardinal Pell said there would have been a discussion.”
“We do not accept that Bishop Mulkearns lied to his consultors.”
The commission did not delineate specific proofs for its conclusion.
The commission also said that Pell would have known about allegations of abuse made against Fr. Peter Searson, who was active as a Melbourne priest during Pell’s time as an auxiliary bishop in the Melbourne archdiocese.
In 1989, Pell held a meeting with representatives from the parish and school in Doveton, where Searson was assigned. During that meeting a number of complaints were made against Searson but, according to Pell, sexual misconduct with children was not raised, and Searson’s removal was not requested.
Following Pell’s installation as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Pell placed Searson on administrative leave and removed him from parish ministry in 1997. Searson died in 2009 and was never charged by police.
A spokesman for Victoria Police, which brought charges against Pell leading to his imprisonment for more than a year before the High Court freed him last month, told the Guardian that the newly released sections of the report would be studied and police would “undertake an assessment of those findings.”
“At this time it would not be appropriate to comment further about any possible action,” The spokesman said.
Current Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli released his own statement in response to the new material from the commission, in which he repeated his previous apologies “for the failure of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne to responsibly care for and protect our young people and vulnerable adults.”
“Child safety and care is not a project with an end date”, Comensoli said, but a project that “requires life-long vigilance.”
In December 2018, Pell was convicted of five counts of sexual abuse, but was acquitted by the Australian High Court last month. Following that decision, the redacted portions of the commission’s findings were released.
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