ROME — One of the Vatican’s most senior officials admitted that the Catholic Church “has made enormous mistakes” in allowing children to be sexually abused by priests, as he testified via video link to a Royal Commission in Australia investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
Australian Cardinal George Pell also admitted that he often believed priests over alleged victims who came forward: “I must say in those days, if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial.”
“I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” Pell said at the beginning of a grueling four-hour hearing late Sunday night via video from a Rome hotel. In order to be take place in the morning in Australia, Pell has agreed to appear beginning at 10 p.m. Rome time and continue until roughly 2 a.m. each day. The hearing is expected to last three or four days.
“The Church has made enormous mistakes, but is working to remedy them,” he said. “In many places, the Church certainly has mucked things up, has let people down.”
Pell, Pope Francis’ handpicked finance czar, is the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify about the sexual abuse of children in the Church, and was called by the commission about his time as a priest in the city of Ballarat and as archbishop of Melbourne prior to his Vatican assignment.
The commission is investigating whether Pell responded appropriately to reports of sexual abuse. It initially asked the cardinal to return to Australia to appear in person, but upon advice from a physician that a heart condition made the long flight dangerous, Pell volunteered to testify via video. It marks the third time he’s been deposed by the commission.
A group of survivors of clerical sexual abuse launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to travel to Rome to be present in the Verdi Room of the Quirinale hotel, where Pell is testifying.
The hotel, two miles from the Vatican, was chosen by the commission. About 20 people, between survivors and supporters, made the trip thanks to the campaign, which raised $130,000 in a few days. At the end of the hearing, Pell didn’t shake hands with the survivors, but he acknowledged their presence and made eye contact with several of them.
Anthony and Chrissie Foster are among those who traveled to Rome to hear Pell’s testimony.
Two of their three daughters were abused by the Rev. Kevin O’Donnell, and one of them committed suicide. A second struggled with alcohol addiction, and while intoxicated was struck by a car, leaving her severely disabled.
“If we don’t see humility the moment he comes in, I don’t think we’ll get the truth,” Anthony Foster told Crux before the hearing begun. “So we need humility, we need the truth, and we need action.”
“I want him to take action,” Foster added. “I want him to change the Church in Australia, change the systems that he put in place, so that they give true justice for victims, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again in the future.”
“The Church hasn’t put into action all the words they’ve said,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by several of the survivors who traveled to Rome. Tony Wardley of Ballarat said he wants Pell to admit that the Church got it wrong, and to “put things in place to stop these things from happening.”
“I’d rather see things changing for the future than continue looking to the past,” he said.
At the beginning of the hearing, the lead counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, asked Pell about his current position in the Vatican, where he serves as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.
Furness also asked about the Church’s current position regarding the way bishops have to respond to allegations of clerical sexual abuse. Pell replied that bishops are called to “respect the law of the land.”
He was then walked through individual cases, such as the case of former Rev. Paul David Ryan, jailed in 2006 for 18 months after admitting three charges of indecent assault against one victim between 1990 and 1991.
Ryan has previously said that Ballarat’s former Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, Pell’s superior at the time, knew that he was abusing children in 1977, but did not revoke his priestly faculties until 1993.
Pell was also asked about the Rev. Gerald Ridsdale, one of the world’s most notorious sexual offenders who was shifted around the diocese. Ridsdale is an Australian laicized Catholic priest who was convicted between 1993 and 2013 of a large number of child sexual abuse and indecent assault charges against 54 children aged as young as four years from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Regarding the way this case was handled by Mulkearns, Pell said it was “a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the Church.”
When asked directly if, while he was the general vicar of education for the Diocese of Ballarat, he had received complaints of clerical sexual abuse, he said, “I can’t remember any such case, but my memory might be playing me false … it’s sometimes fallible.”
Pell has long denied allegations that he was involved in transferring Ridsdale. The priest’s nephew, David Ridsdale, who says he was repeatedly abused by his uncle, has also accused Pell of trying to buy his silence, which he also denies.
In a statement released by his office on Sunday, Pell expressed his support for the Royal Commission’s work, reiterated his commitment to meet with the victims who had traveled to Rome, and said he hoped the coming days “will eventually lead to healing for everyone.”
The statement also said that he had joined the “Loud Fence” movement launched in Ballarat to support survivors of sexual abuse. He did so by tying a yellow ribbon on the fence in the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the Vatican Gardens.
“I am aware of the Loud Fence movement and how it has grown rapidly,” Pell said in the statement. “This is my gesture of support, especially for the people of Ballarat.”
On previous occasions, Pell has expressed regret over meetings he had with victims seeking compensation, admitting that he and others in the Catholic Church have failed in their moral and pastoral responsibilities to make them a priority.
The group of survivors who traveled across the world to participate in the hearing sat in the first row. Many sported red or light blue shirts that read on the front, “No more silence,” and on the back, “Some don’t remember, others won’t forget.”
Others had ribbons hanging out of their pockets, as a sign of adherence to the Loud Fence movement.
David Ridsdale said he was not at the hearing to see Pell “crucified,” because “if we got rid of him, he’d be the scapegoat, and everyone else back home will be left alone.”
“We’re not interested in a distraction,” he said. “We want change, and that can’t happen unless those who were involved help us.”
“I want for (Pell) to acknowledge that this systemic abuse didn’t only affect us, but our city,” Ridsdale said. “I want to make sure that the future is brighter for our children, for our grandchildren, and the Catholic Church has a moral responsibility to make that happen.”
“We need the hierarchy of the Vatican to stand up instead of hiding in legal processes,” he said. “We don’t need more survivors; we need to be the last.”