SYDNEY (AFP) – Cardinal George Pell was aware of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Australia as far back as the 1970s and failed to seek the removal of accused priests, according to findings of a top-level inquiry released on Thursday (May 7).
The Royal Commission report was handed down in 2017 but pages relating to Cardinal Pell’s conduct were heavily redacted to prevent jurors in his trials on child sex abuse allegations from being prejudiced.
Australia’s High Court last month acquitted the former Vatican treasurer of all charges and freed him from jail, allowing the release of findings relating to him from the Royal Commission into institutional child sex abuse.
The commission found that the cleric, when he was a priest in the rural diocese of Ballarat in Victoria state, had begun considering in 1973 the “prudence” of now-jailed child sex abuser Gerald Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camping trips.
“By this time, child sexual abuse was on his radar,” the commission said.
“We are also satisfied that by 1973, Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it.”
The commission found it was “likely that he knew of Ridsdale’s sexual transgressions” when Cardinal Pell joined a meeting about moving the priest to another parish in 1977.
The cardinal, who lived with Ridsdale in 1973 and supported him at his first court appearance in 1993, has insisted he had no memory of claims of sustained mistreatment in Ballarat.
The commission also found that Cardinal Pell should have sought the removal of another priest, Father Peter Searson, after receiving a list of complaints from a delegation of teachers in 1989 when the cardinal was auxiliary bishop in Melbourne.
Searson was the subject of “numerous” complaints between the 1970s and 1990s including child sexual abuse and his “unpleasant, strange, aggressive and violent conduct”, the commission said.
Though the cardinal conceded that he could have been “a bit more pushy” in recommending a course of action to the archbishop, the commission found it had been “incumbent on Pell” to act in 1989 but he did not stand down Searson until 1997.
Searson pleaded guilty that year to physically assaulting a child but was never charged with sexual abuse. He died in 2009.
When the Royal Commission was announced in 2012, Cardinal Pell – then the archbishop of Sydney – called the extent of abuse in the Catholic Church “exaggerated”.
The inquiry heard that there were more than 4,000 alleged victims of paedophilia in religious institutions, and in some Catholic dioceses more than 15 per cent of priests were perpetrators.
Repeatedly questioned during hearings about the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s and 80s, the cardinal apologised on behalf of the church and did admit he “mucked up” in dealing with paedophile priests in the 1970s.
However, he said he was deceived by senior clergy about what was happening during a time of “crimes and cover-ups”.
Cardinal Pell, 78, spent more than a year in prison after being convicted in December 2018 of sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990s when he was the archbishop of Melbourne.
He had strenuously denied the charges and was later acquitted by the High Court in a second appeal against the conviction.
However, he is still facing a civil suit brought by the father of one of choirboys, who died in 2014.
“In my view, his position as Australia’s highest-ranking representative in the Catholic Church should be reviewed based on his choice to protect paedophiles over innocent children, at the time the abuse occurred,” said Ms Lisa Flynn, the deceased man’s lawyer.
In Good Faith Foundation, an abuse recovery group, said the report showed that there were “numerous opportunities” for Cardinal Pell to have acted throughout his time with the Church.
“At each point, he appeared to show more regard for trying to maintain a shroud of ignorance than protecting the most vulnerable in our communities,” it said in a statement.
“These findings ultimately highlight one simple fact: George Pell has always known more than he’s claimed and done less than he should have.”
A spokesman for the cardinal and the Catholic diocese in Sydney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.