Cardinal George Pell will be allowed to give evidence via video link to a royal commission into child sex abuse in Australia because doctors in the Vatican are still concerned about him flying with his heart problems.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse was due to resume for the second stage of its hearing into child sex abuse in Ballarat, in Victoria, later this month after the inquiry in Melbourne was postponed when Pell was unable to travel to give evidence in December. Pell offered to appear via video link but the commission insisted that they wanted to see the Vatican's chief finance officer in person at the inquiry.
Cardinal Pell, 74, is due to give evidence about two case studies: one, on the response of the Archdiocese of Melbourne to allegations of child sexual abuse against Catholic clergy while he was Auxiliary Bishop of the archdiocese. The second area of investigation is about the response to allegations of abuse in Ballarat while he was a priest in the area and an adviser to the Bishop of Ballarat Ronald Mulkearns.
In his decision today (8 February) Justice Peter McClellan said that the commission is now prepared to allow Pell to give evidence from the Vatican because the cardinal is suffering from hypertension and ischaemic heart disease. McClellan said the commissioners were satisfied that the long-haul flight from Rome to Australia posed a risk to the prelate’s health and that his condition was unlikely to improve enough to make postponing his appearance at the inquiry for a second time an option.
One of the worst offenders in Ballarat Gerald Francis Ridsdale gave evidence via video link from prison before Christmas about his memories of abusing boys and girls in the area. Ridsdale was jailed in 1993 and also found guilty again in 2006 and 2013 while serving his sentence for indecent assault and child sex abuse of 54 victims between 1961 and 1982.
At Ridsdale's trial in 1993 Pell testified that despite sharing a house with the paedophile priest in the 1970s he did not know he was a serial sex abuser. Pell has denied knowing of any child sex abuse taking place in Ballarat; the diocese he was ordained in and where he served as a priest in the 1970s and 1980s.
Pell has given evidence to the commission twice before - once in person before he left for Rome in March 2014 to become Prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy and once via video link from Rome in August that year.
"The evidence which he will be asked to give in the present hearings is more extensive than he has previously given in relation to the Melbourne Response," the commission said in a statement.
"Although it remains preferable that he gives evidence in Australia, when the alternative that he give evidence by video link is available the commissioners are satisfied that course should be adopted," the commission added.
Pell's evidence, which is expected to take three days, will now be heard when the commission moves to Sydney on Monday 29 February because there is no time in the schedule in Melbourne.
A statement issued on Pell's behalf on 13 December when he missed the first public hearing, said: "Claims that Cardinal Pell is refusing to attend the Royal Commission or to face victims of sexual abuse are false and ridiculous.”
The commission also ruled that Bishop Mulkearns will give evidence in Melbourne despite being seriously ill with bowel cancer and having problems with his memory.
"In deciding that bishop [Mulkearns] should give evidence it will be important for all parties to bear in mind that the taking of his evidence will be difficult for both him and for counsel assisting seeking a response to questions concerning the bishop’s actions some years previously," the commission said in a statement.
"Whether his evidence could be of utility will have to be assessed after questioning has commenced... If it seems to the commission that questioning is futile we will bring it to an end. If that is necessary it will still be possible for the commission to reach a conclusion in relation to many relevant factual issues from the many documents already in evidence together with the evidence of the other witnesses."