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George Pell sticks to his story over the serial abuse of Gerald Ridsdale

01 March 2016 | by Christopher Lamb in Rome

Cardinal tells commission that he has the full backing of Pope Francis

In Spotlight, the Oscar winning film into the sexual abuse cover up in the Archdiocese of Boston, there is a memorable line from one of the victims: "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them."

So it seemed in the appalling case of Gerald Ridsdale who abused children as he moved from parish to parish in the Diocese of Ballarat, located near to Melbourne, Australia. At one point the former, who was convicted of 54 child sex offences, had a 14-year-old boy living with him in the presbytery. 

Last night one of Ballarat’s most prominent sons, Cardinal George Pell, was pressed repeatedly on what he knew about Ridsdale’s offending by Australia’s royal commission into institutional responses to sexual abuse.

Cardinal Pell once shared a presbytery with Ridsdale and has always maintained he did not know about any offending. Last night he stuck to his guns despite the claim that it was "common knowledge".

During the period under examination, the 1970s and 80s, the cardinal served as one of the bishop’s advisers - a member of the college of consulters - and was episcopal vicar for education. He also attended a 1982 meeting of the consulters where it was agreed to move Ridsdale to another parish although Pell said abuse concerns were never mentioned then.  

If on Monday he showed humility by admitting the Church's "enormous mistakes", last night Pell was more assertive. The cardinal walked into Albergo Quirinale, where he is giving evidence to the commission via video link, looking upbeat and announcing: "I have the full backing of the Pope". Earlier in the day he had seen Francis for a meeting. 

A portion of the hotel has been taken over for the cardinal to give his evidence and accommodate the large media presence and a number of victims. It has become a curious mix of Rome and Australia; of mediterranean and anglo-saxon. Cardinal Pell sits in a room draped with green curtains and chandeliers next to a shelf full of files and an official from the commission who is constantly getting up and down to show the cardinal documents. During the adjournment, which took place at 11.30pm Rome time, victims and journalists mingle over espressos. 

But the clash of cultures is more than just about coffee. The commission want to know what exactly Pell knew and when about abusive priests. This is new to Rome where the Italian bishops are not legally obligated to report abuse to the police. And it is also unusual to see a Prince of the Church, in an institution which lacks any formal accountability for its leadership, to be quizzed so forensically. 

Back to the evidence. The counsel assisting the inquiry, Gail Furness, explained that Ridsdale’s behaviour was fairly widely known in Ballarat. In one parish after there was "talk in the pub" which led the priest to request a transfer and the cardinal’s priest cousin got wind of news that Ridsdale was living with a 14-year-old boy. 

Last night, however, Cardinal Pell insisted he wasn't aware of any of the allegations. He laid the blame squarely at the door of the former Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, whom he said lied to him and was solely responsible for moving Ridsdale from parish to parish. The cardinal stressed he was out of the diocese regularly and was a full time academic (he’d just returned to Australia after being awarded a doctorate at Oxford). He said that in those days, without social media and mobile phones, information flowed less freely between priests and parishes.

At this point the Commission Chairman Justice Peter McClellan interjected somewhat sceptically, "but there were telephones?".

The cross-examination last night was intense and at times tetchy. Ms Furness would often pull what looked like large ribbons together to tighten her jacket - it was as if she was tightening her noose around the cardinal. The 74-year-old prelate neatly batted away her questions and was even fairly combative at times. Pell has become something of a pro at cross-examinations having appeared before the commission twice before. 

Yet there was a warning. After Ms Furness said Pell’s ignorance was implausible, commissioner McClellan said: "If we were to come to the view that you did know, you would be culpable too."

Victims watching the testimony were not happy with Pell’s evidence describing it as a "performance". Among them watching it are the nephew of Ridsdale and Paul Levey, who was the boy who lived in the presbytery with the abusive priest. 

What really upset some of them, however, was the cardinal’s remark to the commission about the Ridsdale matter: "It's a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me."

This gets to the heart of what is being examined. Pell might not have known about abuse, but did he want to know? There is a fine line between ignorance and wilful blindness. 

The cardinal resumes his evidence tonight. 

 

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