He knew. When he walked into Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in 1993 beside Gerald Ridsdale, a man facing dozens of counts of indecent assault against boys, George Pell knew the priest had been abusing children in the church.
According to redacted findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he had known it for more than a decade.
In the early ’70s, he knew Ridsdale, a fellow priest in Ballarat, was taking boys on overnight camping trips. He thought it unusual.
He considered whether this was prudent, because of “the possibility that if priests were one on one with a child then they could sexually abuse a child or at least provoke gossip about such a prospect”.
The future cardinal was aware of child sexual abuse within the church, but “he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it”.
For years, Pell has said that a senior priest, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, lied to himself and other consultors about why Ridsdale needed to be moved. The royal commission found this was implausible: “It is inconceivable in these circumstances that Bishop Mulkearns deceived his consultors by not telling them the true reason.”
With Pell’s own appeal against historical child abuse charges upheld by the High Court, these sections of the commission’s report, long redacted, have now been published.
The image revealed is disturbing.
It is of a man who took little interest in the plight of parishioners who confided to him about the abuses they suffered. He feigned ignorance, cried deception and failed to agitate for action to be taken against clergy who preyed on children, even as his own power in the church grew.
George Pell says he is surprised by the commission’s findings. He says they are not supported by evidence. Similarly, the commission labelled many of his own claims of naivety difficult to believe.
These final sections of the royal commission report confirm what many have long said about the church: that its response to child sexual abuse was calculated and cruel; that it knew more than it said and did less; that countless people were damaged by this, some irreparably.
When the royal commission was announced in 2012, Pell held a press conference at Polding House in Sydney. He said the media had overstated the issues in the Catholic Church. He saw the commission as “an opportunity to clear the air, to separate fact from fiction”. Finally, that is what it has done.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Cardinal truths".
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