Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell insisted he has the “full backing” of Pope Francis as he told an inquiry on Tuesday that abuse claims against Australia’s most notorious paedophile priest were not “of much interest” to him.
Pell was giving evidence from a hotel in Rome via video-link to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney for a second of three days.
The inquiry is currently focused on the town of Ballarat in the state of Victoria, where Pell grew up and worked, and how the church dealt with complaints, many dating back to the 1970s, against the Catholic clergy.
On the opening day he admitted the church “mucked up” in dealing with paedophile priests and vowed he would not “defend the indefensible”.
Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic, now head of the Vatican Treasury, met the pontiff after his initial grilling by the commission and told reporters before resuming his evidence on Tuesday: “I have the full backing of the Pope.”
The commission picked up where it left off with intense questioning about priest Gerald Ridsdale, convicted of more than 100 charges of sexual abuse against children, and the number of times he was moved between parishes around Victoria state in the 1970s and 80s.
Pell, who once shared a home with Ridsdale in Ballarat, was probed about a police report that the priest was interfering with children while in nearby Inglewood.
The commission suggested Ridsdale’s offending was common knowledge within the church but Pell insisted it was never brought to his attention.
“I couldn’t say that I ever knew that everyone knew,” he said. “I didn’t know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn’t. It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
The admission of not being interested drew loud gasps of disbelief in the Sydney hearing room and Pell was asked to explain what he meant.
“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 that Ridsdale had perpetrated,” he said.
Share in culpability
Former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns has admitted he was aware of complaints against Ridsdale and shifted him between parishes but Pell was adamant he knew nothing about it despite being an adviser to the bishop from 1977.
He acknowledged attending a meeting in 1982 to discuss again moving Ridsdale, who is now in jail, but said there was never a mention about paedophilia and that Mulkearns’ failure to tell him was “a gross deception”.
“I knew nothing about his paedophilia. I knew he was a somewhat difficult person and obviously he had been shifted about quite a bit,” he said, adding that he first became aware of Ridsdale’s crimes when he was jailed in 1993.
Pell suggested Mulkearns, now 85 and in a nursing home but who gave evidence to the commission last week, did not inform him because he “would realise that I didn’t know and he did not want me to share in his culpability”.
David Ridsdale, who was abused by his uncle Gerald Ridsdale, said Pell seemed to be accepting no responsibility, instead shifting blame onto others.
“We feel like we have watched a performance rather than evidence,” he said from Rome, where a group of Australian clergy abuse survivors have travelled to witness his testimony.
“I think he just threw a whole bunch of people under a bus.”
Australia ordered the Royal Commission in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate allegations of paedophilia across the country.
It has heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, community, sports and youth groups and schools.