Sexual abuse

Cardinal George Pell and the Australian abuse probe

The then-archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell celebrated a special Mass in Sydney's St. Mary's Cathedral in 2004. Pell, now the Vatican’s third-most-powerful official, has been dogged for years by allegations that he mishandled the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis in his native Australia. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

The then-archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell celebrated a special Mass in Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in 2004. Pell, now the Vatican’s third-most-powerful official, has been dogged for years by allegations that he mishandled the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis in his native Australia. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

SYDNEY — Cardinal George Pell has been dogged for years by allegations that he mishandled the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis in his native Australia, and now the scrutiny is more intense than ever. Australia’s latest inquiry is as high-level as it gets, and since Pell is now the Vatican’s third-most-powerful official, the same can nearly be said for him.

Pell, whom Pope Francis placed in charge of the Vatican’s finances last year, is accused of creating a victims’ compensation program mainly to protect the Church’s assets and of using aggressive tactics to discourage victims’ lawsuits, all while he was a bishop in Australia.

Pell is also facing accusations from earlier in his career when he was a priest and auxiliary bishop and not in the ultimate position of authority: that he ignored warnings about an abusive teacher, bribed the victim of a pedophile priest to stay silent, and was part of a committee that moved that priest from parish to parish.

Pell has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and defended his record on confronting the abuse scandal as archbishop of Melbourne, and later of Sydney. But the investigation by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is raising eyebrows in the Vatican, where the pope promised to hold bishops accountable for failing to protect children and care for victims.

The Vatican’s position was further complicated this week when Peter Saunders, a member of Pope Francis’ sexual abuse advisory commission, spoke out against Pell. The issue has now become so fraught that three Vatican offices have issued statements trying to limit the damage by distancing themselves from Saunders’ comments and, to some degree, what is happening Down Under.

Pell testified twice last year before the long-running Royal Commission — the highest form of investigation in Australia — and with pressure mounting, he offered to appear again. On Monday, the commission took him up on that, asking him to testify at a later date.

The commission is looking at how the Catholic Church and other institutions dealt with decades of abuse across Australia. Given the scale of abuse in Catholic institutions, much of the attention has focused on how the church — and Pell — responded.

“The buck has to stop somewhere,” abuse survivor Paul Tatchell recently told the commission. “And in Australia, it’s George Pell.”

The commission has just wrapped up two weeks of hearings in the city of Ballarat, where scores of children were abused by Catholic clergy from the 1960s to the 1980s. Many victims in Ballarat and elsewhere in Victoria state committed suicide, in one of the worst clusters of clerical abuse trauma in the world.

Anthony Foster’s daughter was one of them. Repeatedly raped as a child by priest Kevin O’Donnell, she committed suicide when she was 26. Her sister was raped by the same priest and began binge drinking to dull the pain, Foster says. One day while intoxicated, she was struck by a car when crossing the road and is now severely disabled.

Foster and his wife met with Pell in 1997 to discuss the abuse. Foster said Pell, then the archbishop of Melbourne, was cold and confrontational, dismissing his concerns that the archdiocese’s compensation program was unfair.

Years later, Foster would testify before a Victoria inquiry into institutional child abuse — a lower, state-level investigation separate from the Royal Commission — that Pell showed a “sociopathic lack of empathy.”

“He was bombastic, certainly overpowering, verge of anger. He was telling us if we didn’t like it, go to court,” Foster says today. “It was adversarial at that point and from that point on.”

Pell has acknowledged having an “unfortunate encounter” with the Fosters, but testified at the Victoria inquiry in 2013 that he believed compassion is best expressed through actions. He noted that the Church compensated the family and paid for their counseling, and called the case a great tragedy.

After Pell’s meeting with the Fosters, the Church sent the family a letter offering compensation, dubbing it a “realistic alternative to litigation that will otherwise be strenuously defended.” That phrasing was used in all Church offer letters sent to Melbourne victims in the 1990s, and was perceived by many to be a way of discouraging legal action.

Under questioning at a Royal Commission hearing, Pell rejected a suggestion the wording was meant to be menacing, and said it wasn’t intended to deter victims from going to court. Still, he described the phrase as inappropriate because it could upset victims.

The Royal Commission, which the government launched in 2012, has no power to criminally charge a person. But commissioners can note in their final report whether they believe someone has broken the law — such as concealing a crime — and can refer the matter to police and prosecutors.

Pell declined to comment to The Associated Press. In his testimony to the Victoria inquiry and a statement to the Royal Commission, he rejected each allegation against him as false and called child abuse “profoundly evil.” Pell denies allegations that he was involved in moving Gerald Ridsdale — Australia’s most notorious pedophile priest — between parishes, and said he never tried to buy the silence of one of Ridsdale’s victims. Pell said he has no memory of ignoring warnings in the 1970s that a teacher was abusing students.

The bribery allegation has been the most explosive one to emerge from the Royal Commission. Ridsdale’s nephew, David Ridsdale, told the commission that in 1993 he spoke by phone with Pell — then an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne and family friend — about the abuse he had suffered at the hands of his uncle.

David Ridsdale testified that Pell began talking about the needs of Ridsdale’s growing family, pointing out that he may soon need to buy a car or house. David Ridsdale testified that Pell then said: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.”

“Some days I don’t know who I am angrier at,” David Ridsdale told the commission. “Gerald for being a sick monster, or George for the way he reacted and dealt with the issue.”

Pell issued a statement denying that he offered the nephew a financial incentive to stay quiet and said he had spoken to him after his uncle was already under investigation — meaning there was no reason to keep the case quiet since authorities already knew about it.

The allegations are unlikely to threaten Pell’s position, since they were already known when the pope made him prefect. But they have been closely watched by members of the pope’s sexual abuse advisory commission, which is expected to discuss Pell’s case at a working group meeting this week in London, said commission member Peter Saunders.

Saunders criticized Pell’s response to the abuse crisis in an interview with Australia’s “60 Minutes” this week, prompting Pell to threaten legal action and the Vatican to issue a statement emphasizing that Saunders had spoken from a personal standpoint and not on behalf of the pope’s commission.

“Cardinal George Pell has always responded carefully and thoroughly to the accusations and questions posed by the competent Australian authorities,” the Vatican statement said. “And his position has been made known again in recent days by a public declaration on his part, which must be considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention.”

Pell has said the Melbourne compensation program he launched in 1996 was groundbreaking within the Church, given that Australian law at the time made it difficult for victims to sue the Church. It initially paid abuse survivors up to 50,000 Australian dollars ($39,000) in exchange for them giving up their right to further litigation. But some victims have dubbed it an inadequate, intimidating tactic to prevent them from suing.

In its final report, the Victoria inquiry found that the program was hardly an independent body as Pell asserted, that the amounts it paid out were not commensurate with the suffering endured, and that the waiver victims were forced to sign made clear they were to keep quiet, creating the perception that it was “hush money.” The inquiry concluded that, while 97 percent of the claims were approved and some victims were satisfied with the program, it ultimately benefited the Melbourne archdiocese by limiting exposure and protecting its reputation.

The protection of the Church and its finances came into sharp focus in the case of John Ellis, a former altar boy who was abused by a priest in the 1970s. Ellis initially offered to settle with the diocese for AU$100,000, but the church rejected that request, eventually spending more than AU$1 million to fight Ellis’ claim in court.

In a report following a hearing on the Ellis case, the Royal Commission found that Pell accepted legal advice to vigorously fight Ellis’ claim partly to discourage other victims from suing the Church. Pell admitted to this in his testimony last year and subsequently apologized to Ellis, saying he and others in the Church had failed in their moral and pastoral responsibilities to him.

“There’s a profound disappointment and anger that … someone in such a position of power and trust, and who is a moral compass for so many, at a fundamental level does not appear to understand the scope and the scale and the horror of the devastation that survivors have experienced,” says Cathy Kezelman, president of the Australian group Adults Surviving Child Abuse.

Several Church leaders have defended Pell, including seven Australian archbishops and bishops who issued a statement of support on Wednesday.

“He is a man of integrity who is committed to the truth and to helping others, particularly those who have been hurt or who are struggling,” the archbishops wrote. “His style can be robust and direct; he does not wear his heart on his sleeve. But underneath he has a big heart for people.”

Nicole Winfield reported from Rome.