Cardinal George Pell has concluded his evidence to Australia’s abuse commission with an admission that he was informed of an abuse complaint but didn’t act on it.
Back in the 1970s the cardinal said that a schoolboy came to him about Edward Dowlan, a Christian Brother who was later convicted of abusing at least 20 boys. The cardinal said: “He just mentioned it casually in conversation, he never asked me to do anything.”
After being asked by the commission’s lawyer why he didn’t take the allegation to the school Pell said: “People had a different attitude then. There was no specifics about the activity, how serious it was and the boy wasn’t asking me to do anything about it but just lamenting and mentioning it.”
The cardinal, who is Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, has been giving evidence this week to the commission via video-link at the Albergo Quirinale in Rome.
During a final, gruelling day of questioning, which saw the cardinal cross-examined by lawyers for victims, the 74-year-old churchman also said he defied opposition in Rome to remove abusive priest Peter Searson from a parish when he was Archbishop of Melbourne.
"I was quite clear in my obligations to the community so I must say I just ignored the Roman decision and Rome didn't push the point,” he said.
But the commission, which is examining institutional responses into clerical sexual abuse, also heard that as an auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne he received complaints about Searson but left the matter to the Catholic education office. Searson died before he could be prosecuted for interfering with young girls during confession and for child sex abuse.
During the four days of questioning, Pell has been asked about his knowledge of abuse in the 1970s and 80s, particularly in his home Diocese of Ballarat which had a number of abusive priests.
One of them was Gerald Ridsdale who was convicted of abusing 54 children and whom Pell once shared a presbytery with.
The cardinal angered victims on Tuesday by saying that he wasn’t “much interested” in the case of Ridsdale but last night said he regretted his choice of words.
He also denied a claim that he tried to silence David Ridsdale, who was abused by his uncle Gerald. David claims in a telephone call in 1993 he told Pell – a friend of the family – of the abuse by his uncle. David alleges that during the phone call the cardinal asked him what could be done to “keep him quiet”.
David Ridsdale is among a number of abuse victims who had travelled to Rome to hear Pell’s evidence. They have, however, criticised his testimony describing it as “performance”. At a brief press conference last night the cardinal said he hoped his appearance at the commission – which was voluntary – would bring about some healing.
The cardinal said he had ensured that Pope Francis and the Vatican’s Secretary of State had been kept informed of developments at the commission.
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