The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Top Vatican cardinal grilled about ‘absolutely scandalous’ sex abuse by priests that rocked Australia

Australian Cardinal George Pell gave evidence to a commission investigating church sexual abuse cases in Australia on Feb. 29. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Andrew Medichini/Reuters)

“I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” Cardinal George Pell told an Australian courtroom Monday.

What he did was attempt to explain how one of the most notorious pedophilia rings in the country could have taken place on his watch, how he could have heard about priests who engaged in “misbehavior” — kissing boys, swimming naked with students — and not reported it, how thousands of children were raped and molested by priests in Australia and elsewhere while the Catholic Church did nothing.

“The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those,” he said via video conference from Rome. “But the church in many places, certainly Australia, has mucked things up … has let people down.”

The investigation into the widespread sexual abuse of children in the city of Ballarat, where Pell was a priest, has brought allegations of exploitation and cover-up extraordinarily far up the Catholic Church’s chain of command; Pell is the church’s secretariat for the economy, and he spoke via video link from a hotel that was just blocks from Vatican.

Top Vatican cardinal trailed by old child abuse scandal from Australia

The hearings before Australia’s Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse also come at a time when the Catholic Church’s handling of child abuse is more generally under scrutiny. The film “Spotlight,” which depicts the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into serially abusive priests, won the Oscar for best picture just hours after Pell concluded his testimony.

But in the courtroom in Sydney, and the hotel room in Rome and in Ballarat where dozens of children were abused years ago, the focus was incredibly specific: What did Pell know, when did he know it and what did he do about it?

Pell said that “a significant number” of people knew about abuse by Christian brothers at schools in his parish — he even said he had heard about “misbehavior” by two priests — and that the church had moved one offending priest from parish to parish while dismissing credible allegations of abuse “in absolutely scandalous circumstances.”

But, he insisted, the problem was with individuals, rather than the overall church. “I think the faults overwhelming have been more personal faults, personal failures, rather than structures,” he testified.

Pell served as a parish priest, educator and adviser to the Bishop in Ballarat for a decade in the 1970s and early 80s. He ultimately became Archbishop of Melbourne and then of Sydney, before being tapped to help reform the church’s finances in 2014. He departed for Rome to great fanfare in 2014, the Australian press reported at the time; supporters called him “the defender of the faith down under.”

Meanwhile Ballarat, where Pell had been a priest for so long, was roiling from a sexual abuse scandal that was still being uncovered. Six Christian Brothers who had worked at various school in the parish were accused of serially exploiting dozens, even hundreds, of students. Four were ultimately convicted of sex crimes, another died before the accusations became public. In addition, Gerald Ridsdale, the chaplain at parish school St. Alipius who had lived with Pell for two years — was found guilty of sexually abusing more than 50 children.

“Ballarat has got this hidden trauma and landscape of death about it,” Peter Blenkiron, a victim, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year. He blamed the abuse for a suicide epidemic he said plagued the city.

Asked about former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns’s decision to relocate Ridsdale — the now defrocked priest was moved to at least nine different parishes over the course of his career, something the church is often accused of doing when faced with allegations of abuse — Pell said he had no role in it, according to the Associated Press.

“I have just re-read the file of Ridsdale. The priest. Ex-priest. And the way he was dealt with was a catastrophe,” Cardinal Pell told the commission, according to the ABC. “A catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the church. If effective action had been taken earlier, an enormous amount of suffering would’ve been avoided.”

Pell has also denied allegations that he was aware of abuses by convicted ex-Brother Ted Dowlan, who was also moved from school to school over the course of 15 years. A victim testified at a hearing last February that he’d tried to tell Pell about the abuse while at a swimming pool in 1973, according to the Australian newspaper The Age. Pell allegedly replied, “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Pressed by Gail Furness, the lead lawyer assisting the commission, Pell said that he’d heard “one or two fleeting references” to “misbehavior” by Dowlan in the 1970s that he thought could have been “pedophilia activity,” according to the Associated Press. But he said he wasn’t aware of the names of the victims, or how many there were, or how widespread knowledge of Dowlan’s offenses were.

Last year, Dowlan was sentenced to six years in prison for abusing 20 boys.

‘Spotlight’ joins ‘All the President’s Men’ in the pantheon of great journalism movies

Pell also said he was aware of the allegations about a brother named Gerald Leo Fitzgerald, who was said to kiss boys and swim naked with students.

“It was certainly unusual, but … nobody said we’ve got to do something about this,” he testified, according to the AP. It was the closest he had ever come to saying he knew about the abuses that were happening in Ballarat while he was a priest there.

The Royal Commission later found that at least 15 people accused Fitzgerald of abuse between 1950 and 1975; his average alleged victim was eight years old. Fitzgerald died in 1987, without ever being charged with a crime.

The commission has presented testimony showing that church officials were well aware of the abuse committed by Ridsdale, Dowlan and others in Ballarat.

“The sexual offending by Christian Brothers at St. Alipius school and St. Pat’s school was known by a significant number in the community — would you agree with that?” Furness asked Pell.

“I would agree that it was known to all the people whom you’ve mentioned and they do constitute a significant number,” the cardinal replied.

Pell explained that children who came forward with accusations of abuse were less likely to be believed.

“In those days, if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial,” he said. This was true across the church, he continued: “At that stage, the instinct was more to protect the institution, the community of the church, from shame.”

But he said he couldn’t ever recall hearing a complaint about abuse himself.

“I don’t remember any such thing happening and therefore I don’t believe it did but my memory is sometimes fallible,” he said, according to the ABC.

“It’s all about still sort of passing the buck a little bit, can’t remember and all those things,” Tim Lane, a Ballarat resident who has testified that he was fondled by priest Grant Ross at age four, told the ABC. “But I remember as a four-year-old, I’m 44 now, and that was 40 years ago. Very clear and vivid. These guys were priests in their 20s and that, and they can’t recall and can’t remember? Well, the whole world ain’t that gullible.”

Lane’s brother John, who attended St. Alipius, committed suicide at age 19, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. His family says that John was abused by Fitzgerald.

David Ridsdale, who was abused by Gerald Ridsdale — his uncle — told the ABC he was encouraged by Pell’s use of terms like “scandalous” and “catastrophe.”

But, he continued, “Words are one thing, actions are another. We’re waiting for the actions which include ensuring not only that those catastrophes never happen again but to be acknowledging and explaining why those catastrophes happened.”

More from Morning Mix

‘Help! Brother has killed everyone’: Indian man fatally slashed 14 relatives at family gathering, police say