George Pell didn’t know, and he wasn’t interested. That was the essence of his testimony to the Child Abuse Royal Commission about rampant sexual abuse by priests in the Ballarat Diocese, while he was based there in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pell had other interests. He has found plenty of time throughout his career to turn his mind to battling homosexuality, contraception, championing climate change denial and defending Vatican orthodoxy.
Questioned about notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale, Pell ventured that, “It was a sad story and of not much interest to me”. Yet Pell sat on the church committee that was responsible for perpetually moving Ridsdale around parishes in Ballarat, to avoid his crimes ever getting to the police.
He admitted to hearing “rumours” that Brother Edward Dowlan, based at St. Patrick’s College in Ballarat, was abusing children. One former student says he told Pell directly in 1974. Pell says he spoke to the school chaplain but left it to the Christian Brothers to deal with the issue, and did no more.
As David Marr has written, it was a convenient approach to take for someone with big ambitions in the Church. Defying the hierarchy to demand action against paedophile priests would have been dangerous so early in his career.
As Marr put it, “Pell is seeing out his career as cardinal in charge of the Vatican’s finances. But what would have happened to his mighty career if early on he had crossed those bishops?”
Cardinal Pell defended himself by claiming that, once he had risen through the ranks, he tried to put things right, saying, “The church has made enormous mistakes, but is working to remedy them.”
He pointed to his efforts as Archbishop to establish the “Melbourne Response”, a framework for dealing with child abuse complaints and compensating victims. But this also had other aims: keeping abuse allegations out of the courts and limiting damages payments to victims.
In exchange for a payout, victims of sexual abuse were required to sign away their rights to sue. They were also discouraged from going to the police, the Royal Commission has found.
Victims received an average of just $36,100 compensation. The Sunday Age estimates this saved the Church up to $62 million. The alternative to accepting the tiny sum the Church offered was a gruelling court battle. Victims were promised that claims would be vigorously defended.
Pell was true to his word, spending more than $1 million fighting victim John Ellis in court after he moved to Sydney. The Church argued, successfully, that it could not be sued because it does not exist as a legal entity. Church assets have been safely secured from claims by a legal device.
Yet the Melbourne Archdiocese, according to the Royal Commission, still has assets of $222 million, a fund for Church activities of $102 million and a financial surplus in the millions.
George Pell has risen to high places in the Church through his vigorous defence of conservative doctrine. Defending the assets and teachings of the Church have been far more important to him than basic compassion and decency towards the victims of priests’ sexual abuse.
Even before he became an Archbishop he was demanding the Church to take up the fight against the modern world and be, “a mite more confrontational and certainly much less conciliatory toward secular values”. His inspiration was the Cold War warrior Bob Santamaria.
He even claimed, “Abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people.” He has an obsession with defending homophobic bigotry.
Pell was in his element crusading for the conservative values championed by Popes like John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And he was well rewarded, with posts in a series of Vatican committees defending doctrine, the position of Cardinal and now the job as head of the Vatican bank, making him supposedly the third most powerful man in the Catholic Church.
He obviously enjoys where all this has taken him. Pell is a man who mixes in powerful circles, and clearly enjoys it. During his time in Melbourne he was a member of the notorious Melbourne Club, frequented by the city’s elite. He has boasted that numerous politicians have sought his counsel.
At the Vatican Pell built himself grand lodgings at the newly-establish “Domus Australia”, a “pilgrim house” restored and refurbished with a chapel, 150-seat auditorium and rooms for paying visitors. Pell paid for the fit-out with funds from the Church in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Lismore in 2011.
Pell’s inaction on church abuse destroyed people’s lives. But he has been well-rewarded.
By James Supple