ROME — A senior Vatican official under fire for his record on child sexual abuse cases met with a group of survivors on Thursday, after wrapping up a grueling four-day hearing before an Australian Royal Commission that lasted into the early hours of the morning each night in Rome.
Australian Cardinal George Pell, currently the Vatican’s top financial official, defined the private encounter as “extremely emotional” and vowed to work to protect children in the future.
“[It was] an honest and occasionally emotional meeting,” Pell said. “I’m committed to working with the people in Ballarat.”
Ballarat is the Australian city where Pell was born and spent his first years of his priestly career. It’s also the home of some of the country’s most notorious pedophile priests, whose crimes were often hidden by the local bishop.
Pell made the comments after a nearly two-hour-long meeting with about a dozen Australian survivors who had flown to Rome for the hearing examining the abuse scandals, which was conducted via video link between Rome and Ballarat.
“I know many of their families and I know of the goodness of so many people in Catholic Ballarat,” he said, adding that it’s “a goodness that is not extinguished by the evil that was done.”
Pell told both the survivors and the journalists who had been waiting for him at the door of Rome’s Quirinale Hotel that he was committed to working with the people from Australia to help them work effectively with the committees and agencies the Catholic Church has in Rome.
In particular, Pell mentioned the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of minors, a body created by Pope Francis to put the Church at the forefront of prevention of sexual abuse and support of survivors.
“I shouldn’t promise what might be impossible,” Pell said. “We all know how hard it is to get things done. But I do want it known that I support the work to investigate the feasibility of a research center to enhance healing and to improve protection.”
At the crack of dawn Thursday, after concluding a six-hour cross-examination, Pell told members of the press that he didn’t think his testimony would hurt his reputation in the Vatican.
“I think this event might do a little bit of good in Europe,” he said, suggesting it could raise awareness about the abuse issue.
The group of survivors who met with Pell Thursday had flown into Rome Sunday, thanks to a crowd funding campaign launched after the Royal Commission agreed to allow the cardinal to testify via video link rather than in person.
He was initially asked to return to Australia last December, but upon advice from a physician that a heart condition made the long flight dangerous, Pell volunteered to testify via video.
After the encounter, David Ridsdale, who was sexually abused by his uncle, serial pedophile and ex-priest Gerarld Ridsdale, spoke in the name of the group. He defined the meeting as “extremely emotional,” adding that they’d met “at a level playing field, we met as people of Ballarat.”
Ridsdale then said that the survivors would be taking the rest of the day to ponder the events of the past few days. They also asked for no further contact from the media.
However, not all of those who came from Australia opted to attend the meeting with Pell, including Anthony and Chrissie Foster.
When the cardinal was one of four auxiliary bishops of Melbourne in the early 1990s, two of their three daughters were abused by the Rev. Kevin O’Donnell. One of them committed suicide. The second struggled with alcohol addiction, and while intoxicated was struck by a car, leaving her severely disabled.
Anthony Foster spoke to the journalists gathered at the door of the Quirinale Hotel, holding a photo of their daughters and saying, “This is what it’s all about.”
Presenting a picture of his family before his daughters were raped by O’Donnell, Foster said, “this was our perfect family, and the Catholic Church destroyed it” by not controlling its priests.
Although no names were mentioned in Pell’s statement, he did make a reference to the suffering of the Fosters.
“One suicide is one suicide too many, and there have been many such tragic suicides,” he said. “I commit myself to working with the group to try to stop this, so that suicide is not seen as an option for those who suffer.”
Ridsdale, chosen as an impromptu spokesman for the group, has accused Pell of trying to buy his silence during a phone call in 1993. His lawyer cross-examined the cardinal on the last day of the hearing, which ran from 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. Rome time.
The Vatican’s treasurer has long denied those allegations, and Wednesday night said that it was “implausible” that he’d tried to bribe him for a number of reasons.
“The first was that I was aware the police were already speaking to his uncle, so I had no reason to discourage him from going to the police,” he said. “It’s implausible because as auxiliary bishop I had no access to significant resources. It’s implausible because I was auxiliary bishop of Melbourne and this was a matter for the Ballarat diocese. And it is implausible because of course, it’s criminal.”
It’s still possible that some members of the group that flew in from Australia will meet with Pope Francis. They made the formal request for such a meeting on Monday, with the assistance of the Rev. Mark Withoos, Pell’s personal secretary.
Earlier on Thursday three of the survivors, including Ridsdale, met with the Rev. Hans Zollner, a German member of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors and head of the Institute of Psychology at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University.
Prior to the group meeting, Pell met alone with survivor Phill Nagle, who was abused by a priest in the Diocese of Ballarat while the cardinal was the vicar for education.
Nagle, too, left the private meeting with a hopeful attitude.
“We talked about compensation, about care, about what the future will be for us survivors, and how the Church is going to help out from George’s level down,” he said.
“We talked about the future, not the past…I think he gets it,” Nagle said, adding he’s not sure what Pell’s role will be after the hearing.In several opportunities through the four days of testimony, which amounted to 19 hours on the stand, Pell expressed regret over the impact child sexual abuse has had, and admitted his and the Church’s poor response to it.
“The Church has made enormous mistakes, but is working to remedy them,” he said on the first day. “In many places, the Church certainly has mucked things up, has let people down.”
Asked on the second day of testimony if he accepted any responsibility for the priests repeated transfers within the Ballarat diocese, Pell said he didn’t.
On the third day, the lead counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, suggested he was lying when he denied knowledge of criminal allegations swirling around two notorious pedophile priests in the diocese of Ballarat.
Pell’s evidence that he was deceived by Church authorities in both Ballarat and Melbourne was an “extraordinary position,” Furness said.
“Counsel, this was an extraordinary world. A world of crimes and cover-ups and people who did not want the status quo to be disturbed,” Pell said.
“I not only disturbed the status quo, but when I became archbishop, I turned the situation right around so that the Melbourne Response procedures were light years ahead of all this obfuscation and prevarication and deception,” he added, referring a program he opened in 1996 to pay compensation to clerical sexual abuse survivors.
On the last day, he admitted he had failed to act when casually informed about an abuse case four decades ago. Questioned by a lawyer who was representing a survivor from Australia, Pell said that after a young man told him the Rev. Edward Dowlan was “misbehaving with boys” he “didn’t do anything about it.”
He added that he had taken the time to ascertain the reliability of the rumor by bringing it up to the principal, and was told the matter was being looked into.
“With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more,” he said.
“As a Catholic priest, I regret the damage these crimes do to the faith of the survivors, of the victims, and their friends and family and generally throughout society,” Pell said on that last day. “I lament this.”
Despite being Australia’s highest investigative body, the Royal Commission has no power to act on their findings beyond giving recommendations and asking the corresponding criminal justice authorities to investigate further.
As of yet, no charges have formally been raised against Pell, and several of the victims consulted by Crux throughout the hearing said they weren’t in Rome to see the cardinal in prison, but to have him committed to ensuring there are no more victims.
One of them was Ridsdale, who said he didn’t want 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.”
The Royal Commission has been working since 2013, with a budget of $200 million ($281 million in Australian dollars) for a three-year study. However, in its website the body suggests the need to extend the process until Dec. 2017.
Over the past four days it became clear that a lack of proper institutional response to abuse allegations was systemic in the 1970s in Ballarat, where most of the charges against Pell originate.
Pell and others have acknowledged that then-Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who resigned in 1997, knew of cases of clerical sexual abuse decades ago, as did some of his close aides, the local police, and in some cases entire parishes. Yet nothing was done to stop offenders such as Risdale, Dowlan, and others.
During the four days of hearings, Pell was not asked about recent reports in the Australian media that police in the state of Victoria are examining allegations that Pell personally abused a number of boys between 1978 and 2001.
Pell has dismissed those accusations as “utterly false,” noting that similar claims were raised 15 years ago and no charges were ever filed. He suggested leaks about the investigation were calculated to damage his standing ahead of his appearance before the Royal Commission.