Unredacted reports of the 2017 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, released today, rejected Cardinal Pell’s evidence that he was deceived and lied to by Catholic Church officials about Australia’s worst pedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, and Melbourne parish priest Peter Searson.
The findings relate to Cardinal Pell’s knowledge of abuse allegations in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was a priest and bishop’s adviser in Ballarat and an auxiliary bishop and adviser to the archbishop in Melbourne.
Cardinal Pell was one of a number of senior church officials criticised over their handling of abuse complaints or allegations against numerous priests and Christian Brothers in the Melbourne archdiocese and Diocese of Ballarat.
The catastrophic failures were led by the 1974-1996 Melbourne archbishop Frank Little and the 1971-1997 Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who the inquiry found prioritised protecting the church’s reputation over the welfare of children.
Ridsdale was repeatedly moved between parishes by Bishop Mulkearns, who knew about his offending.
The commission rejected Cardinal Pell’s claim that Bishop Mulkearns lied to or deceived his advisers in 1982 when Ridsdale was removed from the parish of Mortlake, where the priest later admitted his behaviour was “out of control”.
Cardinal Pell gave evidence the bishop did not give the true reason for Ridsdale’s removal and lied by not doing so.
But the commissioners did not accept that Bishop Mulkearns lied to his consultors and were satisfied he did not deceive his consultors.
The commission found Bishop Mulkearns told the advisers it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the diocese and from parish work because of complaints he had sexually abused children.
“Cardinal Pell’s evidence that ‘paedophilia was not mentioned’ and that the ‘true’ reason was not given is not accepted,” the commission’s said.
“It is implausible … that Bishop Mulkearns did not inform those at the meeting of at least complaints of sexual abuse of children having been made.”
The commission also rejected Cardinal Pell’s evidence he was deceived by Melbourne Catholic education officials because they did not tell him what they knew about Searson’s behaviour.
“We do not accept that Bishop Pell was deceived, intentionally or otherwise,” the commissioners found.
In its reports originally released in December 2017, the commission found Archbishop Little repeatedly did nothing about Searson – an “unstable and disturbed individual” – and others who abused children, as he sought to protect the church from scandal.
A 1989 delegation of Doveton teachers told then-Bishop Pell about Searson harassing children, staff and parents, showing children a body in coffin and animal cruelty, among other complaints.
The commission found Cardinal Pell should have urged the archbishop to take action against Searson to protect the children of the parish and the Catholic community in his region.
“On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989, it ought to have been obvious to him at the time,” the commission said.
“He should have advised the archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so.”
The royal commission findings were released after the High Court last month overturned Cardinal Pell’s child abuse convictions, although redacted versions of the two reports were initially published in December 2017.
The findings were redacted in order to avoid prejudicing the trial of Cardinal Pell, who was then charged with child sexual abuse.
In December 2018, a jury found Pell guilty of five charges, accepting evidence of one complainant that the then-Archbishop of Melbourne had sexually abused him and another 13-year-old choirboy at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.
In an initial trial, a jury was unable to reach a verdict. The second jury was unanimous in its decision.
An appeal to Victoria’s Court of Appeal last year was unsuccessful, but a later appeal to the High Court saw the convictions overturned.
Pell was released from prison in April this year after serving more than 400 days.
Within hours, Pope Francis tweeted about the persecution of Jesus and those suffering from an “unjust sentence because someone had it in for them”, without naming Pell, who he put in charge of Vatican finances in 2014.
A legal firm acting for child sex abuse survivors today said the royal commission findings came as little surprise.
“We act for many clients who were abused in the Melbourne Archdiocese and Ballarat Diocese and sadly for a number of them while today’s findings will be deeply disappointing, including that the abuse they suffered was known and not acted on, it will be of little surprise,” Maurice Blackburn’s Michelle James said.
“For some of our clients this is now compounded in knowing that the Church was not only on notice about their offender but allowed this to continue, in some cases over many years, with little care or regard for the countless numbers of children who continued to suffer harm.
“Today’s findings further reinforce that the Catholic Church must now act urgently in doing the right thing by survivors.
“In too many of our cases, including cases against the Melbourne Archdiocese and the Ballarat Diocese, we continue to see the Church denying responsibility behind complex legal structures and making it very difficult for survivors to access justice.
“Our clients have waited long enough, and as findings like today’s make clear the Church has had more than enough time to act in showing it prioritises the safety and wellbeing of children in its care and the adult survivors now seeking redress.
“We call on the Catholic Church to act on these findings, including in taking a fair and genuine approach to its dealings with abuse survivors.”
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