Cardinal Pell, who was then a Ballarat priest, says he did not know that Ridsdale’s offending was common knowledge in the Victorian parish of Inglewood in 1975 and did not know about the allegations.
“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” he told the child abuse royal commission from Rome, drawing gasps from some observers in the room.
“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.”
Former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns knew about complaints against Ridsdale when he moved him between parishes but Pell said he was not told about it when he was an adviser to the bishop from 1977.
Pell, appearing before the commission for the second day via videolink, said the bishop and senior cleric Monsignor Leo Fiscalini deceived him and other advisers at meetings which discussed moving Ridsdale.
The commission has heard Ridsdale’s offending was common knowledge in at least two parishes but Cardinal Pell maintained he did not know.
Commission chair Justice Peter McClellan said Pell would be held to be culpable if he, like Mulkearns, did know about the offending.
Pell said that was correct.
“It is very clear of course that the decision is one of the bishop’s, that the consultors only have an advisory capacity and of course all of us have to respect the evidence,” Pell said.
But Pell also said he was lied to and deceived.
While he didn’t know why Ridsdale was moved on to new parishes in the Victorian diocese of Ballarat in the 1970s, Mulkearns and other priests knew of repeated paedophilia allegations.
McClellan asked: “You say the bishop deceived you, is that right?”
Pell replied: “Unfortunately, correct.”
McClellan asked why Mulkearns would have deceived his advisers about Ridsdale’s behaviour.
Pell said Mulkearns may have been trying to protect the consulters.
“He might have wanted to protect us from his wrongdoing,” Pell said.
“He might have feared that if he told us the truth that people like myself would have said `well look is that correct, I’m not sure we should be going in that direction at all’.
“The reasons why he did these things repeatedly is a great mystery to me.”
McClellan pressed Pell on why the bishop would have deceived him and lied about Ridsdale’s behaviour when it was common knowledge in at least two parishes.
“Given that it was common knowledge by many people why would he choose to deceive you?”
Pell said: “Because he would realise that I didn’t know and he did not want me to share in his culpability.
“And also I think he would not have wanted to mention it to me and at least some other members of the consulters because at the very minimum we would have asked questions about the propriety of such a practice.”
Pell agreed that was his job as a consulter “and almost certainly it would have been done”.
Counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness SC said Ridsdale’s problems were not a secret.
“To suggest as you have repeatedly that knowledge about Ridsdale was secret is just not true,” Furness told Pell.
Pell said he was not suggesting it was not known by others.
“It wasn’t known to me and I believe it wasn’t known to quite a number of others,” he said.
McClellan said there were multiple consulters meetings between 1977 and 1979, during which time Pell would have also met with the bishop and heard gossip within the Ballarat diocese.
Pell said he did not hear anything about Ridsdale’s misbehaviour between 1977, when he says he was deceived, and 1979.
“We’re talking about a different age. There was no social media. I don’t think there were mobile telephones.
“We are talking about a country diocese. There was certainly not the flow of information in society that there is now, and certainly on a topic like this there were enormous social inhibitions on discussing such matters.”
McClellan said there were telephones in the diocese.
Earlier, the cardinal told the hearing via an audio visual link from the Hotel Quirinale in Rome it was unacceptable that Mulkearns had moved Ridsdale between parishes, including to Inglewood in 1975.
“It’s unacceptable because of the risk it presented to children in Inglewood and that was exacerbated by the fact it doesn’t seem as though any effort was made to withdraw Ridsdale, at least for a period, for counselling or advice or help,” he said.
The cardinal told waiting media as he arrived at the hearing he had “the full backing of the Pope”.
This is Pell’s third appearance before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
On the first day of his testimony, he said he was unaware of sexual abuse and cover-ups across the Ballarat diocese when he was there from 1973 to 1984.
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