Australia's national inquiry into child sexual abuse has begun a scheduled four weeks of public hearings into the Archdiocese of Melbourne and its neighbouring Victorian Diocese of Ballarat in which Cardinal George Pell is to give evidence for the third time.
Cardinal Pell, a former Archbishop of Melbourne and later of Sydney, has indicated that his counsel will cross-examine abuse survivors - a departure from the practice adopted by Australia's bishops and religious orders with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The cardinal, now Prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy, has drawn criticism from survivors and their supporters for his decision but some of his critics within the Church have defended his right to defend himself over claims made against him at previous hearings.
Ballarat-born Cardinal Pell is expected to give evidence in both case studies, relating to his time as a priest in his home diocese and later as Auxiliary Bishop to Archbishop Sir Frank Little in Melbourne from 1987 until he succeeded Archbishop Little, who died in 2008, nine years later.
The resumption of the hearing into Catholic institutions in Ballarat from May this year is expected to begin around 7 December and conclude by 18 December, with the cardinal expected to give evidence in person from 14 December.
His successor in Melbourne, Archbishop Denis Hart, is also due to give evidence.
Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission, Ms Gail Furness, said in her opening address to the hearing in Melbourne on 24 November that the first part of the hearing would considers the response of the Archdiocese of Melbourne from the 1980s until 1996 to complaints and concerns about eight of its priests.
Ms Furness said between January 1980 and 28 February this year, 454 people made a claim or substantiated complaint of child sexual abuseabout priests, religious, employees and volunteers operating within the Archdiocese, with the 1970s recording the highest number of claims, 142 (34% ofthe total).
She said 316 claims resulted in monetary compensation payment either from a civil claim or from the archdiocesan protocol, the Melbourne Response.
"When taking into account treatment, legal and other costs, a total of $16.8 million was paid to claimants at an average of around $52,000 per claimant," Ms Furness said.
"Those accused were overwhelmingly male, with only 8 per cent being female."
The Melbourne hearings will focus on the response of Church authorities to allegations of child sexual abuse against several clergy associated with Holy Family Parish and its parish school in suburban Doveton.
Ms Furness said one of the priests at Doveton, the late Fr Peter Searson, had been the subject of complaints from before his appointment to the parish in 1984.
"Most (at Doveton) concerned the Holy Family Primary School and related to conduct that had, at least, the potential to harm children.
"They included having a hand gun at school, animal cruelty, showing a body in a coffin to children and unnecessary physical and sexualised conduct with children.
"The sexualised conduct included having children sit on his knee in confession, having them kneel between his knees during confession, tape recording ‘hot’ confessions, cuddling girls and having girls do handstands in front of him in their dresses.
"There were also complaints that he frequented the boys’ toilets. There were other concerns about misuse of finances and generally being rude, unstable and manipulative.
"The evidence will be that these complaints were communicated to the Catholic Education Office and, that often the Vicar General at the time and then Archbishop, Frank Little, were aware of them.
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"On occasion, Searson was interviewed and he usually admitted the fact of the allegation but disavowed any untoward purpose. Those admissions were not always recognised as such by Church officials.
"In 1989, four representatives from the parish school met with then Auxiliary Bishop George Pell. The delegation was intended to tell the Bishop, who was responsible for the region, what it was about Searson’s conduct that concerned them.
"The most reliable evidence of what was said is likely to be found in a list of grievances they prepared for the purpose of the meeting. That included reference to harassment of children, staff and parents, health and safety issues, the incidents concerning the coffin and cruelty to animals and the unnecessary use of the children’s toilets.
"The evidence is expected to be that whatever was said was passed by then Bishop Pell to the then Vicar General, Monsignor (Hilton) Deakin."
The Independent Commissioner with the Melbourne Response, Mr Peter O'Callaghan, QC, recommended that Fr Searson be put on administrative leave, which occurred on 14 March 1997.
In December that year, Searson pleaded guilty to unlawful assault of the altar boy and was released without conviction ona good behavior bond. In July 1998, Searson’s faculties as a priest were removed.
"As Archbishop Hart is expected to say, there was a ‘complete failure of process’ in the handling of complaints in Doveton by the Archdiocese," Ms Furness said.
The Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which is coordinating the bishops' and religious orders' dealings with the Royal Commission, has released guidelines for how Church authorities should respond when claims of child sexual abuse are made against them.
The guidelines come into effect from 1 January and are designed to promote justice and consistency in the way the Church handles child sexual abuse claims and conduct litigation when taken to court.