Cardinal George Pell categorically denied having any timely knowledge of the crimes of Australia’s most notorious pedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, in his second day of testimony, via video conference from Rome, to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney.
While serving as a priest, Ridsdale abused a large number of children in the city of Ballarat and Victoria state between 1960 and 1987, and was convicted between 1993 and 2013 for the sexual abuse of 54 of them. He has been laicized and is currently serving a prison sentence.
As a young priest in the early 1970s, Cardinal Pell lived with Ridsdale in a presbytery in Ballarat for almost a year. Then in 1982, as a member of the board of consultors of the local bishop, he participated in a meeting where it was decided that Ridsdale be transferred from the parish of Mortlake to the Catholic Inquiry Center; it was but the latest of many moves of the priest predator from one place to another. The cardinal told the Royal Commission that even then he had no knowledge of the crimes the priest was perpetrating. The historical record shows that, as bishop, Cardinal Pell accompanied Ridsdale to court for his first appearance in 1993.
Last night the cardinal stunned the 15 survivors who were sitting in the front four rows in the Hotel Quirinale, when, responding to a question from the counsel, he told the Royal Commission that after the 1993 conviction he viewed Ridsdale’s crimes in the 1970s and ’80s as “a sad story and not of much interest to me (then).” He acknowledged that “the suffering of course was real and I very much regret that, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils.”
Not long after, in the half-hour break during the hearing on Monday evening, Feb. 29, David Ridsdale, an abuse survivor told the press, “It beggars belief that he could have said that he wasn’t interested in hearing about the crimes of my uncle.”
The hearing is being held under tight security in the Verdi room of the Hotel Quirinale, Rome. While the room was packed (more than 120 people) for the opening session on Feb. 28, last night’s session attracted only 75 people, including 15 survivors or family members of the victims, a small group of clerics who came out of solidarity with the cardinal and some 30 reporters from the national and international media.
Earlier that day, Cardinal Pell had had his usual weekly meeting with Pope Francis regarding matters relating to the Secretariat for the Economy around midday, and when questioned about this by reporters on arrival for this evening’s hearings he told them that he had “the full backing of the Holy Father.”
He gave his testimony seated at a table in the left hand corner at the front of the room, and spoke in a measured voice for the most part, looking at the video screen in front of him and responding to the counsel.
While there was a significant international dimension to the first night’s hearings, the session last evening was distinctly Australian. Almost all the questions raised by Ms. Gail Furness, the counsel for the commission, focused on the case of Gerald Ridsdale. Her strategy was clear: She identified many people (especially the bishop, vicar general, priests and nuns) whom the cardinal knew and who, in varying capacities, had knowledge of the crimes being perpetrated for many years before Ridsdale’s arrest and conviction. She pointed out that his crimes were known to many families and lay people in three parishes in the Ballarat area, were “pretty common knowledge,” and were even being discussed in the pubs. She drew the cardinal’s attention to the fact that the local bishop, Mulkearns and three priests who served with Cardinal Pell on the board of consultors of the bishop (in the early 1980s) had detailed knowledge of the allegations against Ridsdale.
As she presented this information in chronological order, frequently corroborated by written evidence which was shown to the cardinal, Ms. Furness again and again interrogated the cardinal about what he knew, or what he was told, or even had heard via rumors or gossip from any of these people about Ridsdale’s abuse of children. The cardinal repeatedly denied absolutely any knowledge of the crimes. He agreed with the counsel that Bishop Mulkearns, the vicar general and at least one priest friend knew of the allegations, but had never told him in those years. Moreover, he added, “I was rarely a party to gossip.” He denounced the bishop for having kept him in the dark and for having dealt in a totally wrong way with Ridsdale. He said the bishop and a monsignor friend on the board of consultors had “deceived” him by not sharing the information with him.
At one stage, the Australian cardinal stated that “that there was never any discussion about Ridsdale and pedophilia in my presence” at the meetings of consultors. He told the commission there is a saying in the church that “those who know don’t say and those who say don’t know.”
Under intense questioning, Pell declared, “I recall for certain that pedophilia was never mentioned in those meetings.” This remark provoked a quick response from both the counsel and the judge as to how he could recall with such certainty “what was not said, but not what was said” in those meeting of the counsellors with the bishop.
Near the end of the evening’s session, the judge told the cardinal, “All your answers have been designed to exclude responsibility [on your part] regarding Ridsdale.” Cardinal Pell denied that his answers were designed for any such thing; he insisted that he was simply responding truthfully to the questions raised.
It was clear by the end of the three and a half hour hearing that the survivors were not happy with what they saw as Cardinal Pell’s failure to tell the whole truth. Earlier, during the break, one of them—Stephen Woods, speaking before the TV cameras and reporters—called on Pope Francis to intervene to help them get the truth.
The hearings continue this Tuesday evening at 10 p.m. (Rome time).