ROME — Controversy in Australia over the Vatican’s top financial official intensified on Thursday, with leaked documents suggesting that Cardinal George Pell, already under fire for his response to sex abuse allegations against other clergy, is under investigation himself for the alleged abuse of five to 10 boys.
Pell’s Rome office immediately issued a statement calling those accusations “without foundation and utterly false.”
According to the statement, Pell was investigated for these accusations more than 15 years ago. The result of that query, known in Australia as the Southwell Report after AJ Southwell, the former Australian judge who ran the probe, exonerated Pell. The conclusions, Pell’s statement said, have been in the public domain since 2002.
“He strongly denies any wrongdoing,” the statement said, and “if the police wish to question him he will co-operate, as he has with each and every public inquiry.”
Pell presently serves as the Vatican’s secretary for the economy, in effect its chief financial officer, a post he’s held since Pope Francis named him in February 2014.
The old accusations against Pell, which are now the subject of a fresh probe, reportedly were leaked to the press recently by police officials in the Australian state of Victoria. Media reports say that the alleged victims, dating back to when Pell was a priest in the city of Ballarat in Victoria and later archbishop of Melbourne, have been questioned.
The allegations reportedly are being reviewed by more than a dozen detectives from what’s known as the Sano Taskforce, a police unit set up to probe allegations arising from Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The leaked documents, however, provided no information about the results of the investigation.
According to his office, Pell knew nothing about the investigation until the media reported it.
Before the new controversy emerged, Pell had been scheduled to testify before a Royal Commission investigating the Catholic Church’s response to the abuse scandals by video link from Rome for three days starting Feb. 29.
Given the coincidence, Pell’s office believes the timing of the leaks is “clearly designed to do maximum damage to the cardinal and the Catholic Church and [to] undermine the work of the Royal Commission.”
“The Victorian police have taken no steps in all of this time to pursue the false allegations made, however the cardinal certainly has no objection to them reviewing the materials that led Justice Southwell to exonerate him,” said the statement released by Pell’s office Friday.
“The cardinal is certain that the police will quickly reach the conclusion that the allegations are false,” it said.
Pell was originally scheduled to testify to the Royal Commission for the third time last December, but a physician advised him against the long plane flight to Australian due to heart difficulties.
Earlier this month, the commission chair, Justice Peter McClellan, agreed to allow Pell to give his evidence from Rome, which prompted a campaign led by child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters to raise money to send survivors of clerical sexual abuse to Rome to witness the hearing.
In a statement released Wednesday, the cardinal said he wouldn’t object meeting with survivors: “As Cardinal Pell has done after earlier hearings, he is prepared to meet with and listen to victims and express his ongoing support.”
Pell’s appearance before the commission will be about his alleged role in moving a pedophile priest in Ballarat between parishes while he was an assistant priest at Ballarat East from 1973 to 1983.
Neither that previous inquiry nor a previous one led by the Victorian Parliament found evidence of wrongdoing.
Australia’s most senior prelate has met victims privately several times. The last time he testified before the royal commission, he did so with victims present. The commission hasn’t decided if victims will be allowed into the room this time.
In 1996, Pell became the first member of Australia’s Catholic hierarchy to address the clerical sexual abuse of children. Three months after becoming archbishop of Melbourne, he created the Melbourne Response to help victims.
“In reality, he was the first bishop in the country to move on [confronting abuse scandals],” Archbishop Anthony Fisher, who succeed Pell in Sydney, told Crux in an exclusive interview last July.
“There’s a desire for a scalp, for a big name to go down,” he said. “They want to put [Pell] in the stocks and throw tomatoes at him … they want humiliation.”