Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell admitted Thursday he “should have done more” to follow-up on claims a priest was abusing boys, as survivors accused him of lying about what he knew.
Pell gave evidence for a fourth and final day to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney via videolink from Rome and came under intense questioning from lawyers representing victims of abuse by the clergy.
He has consistently denied any wrongdoing during his time in the town of Ballarat and the city of Melbourne in the state of Victoria, where he grew up and worked, in the 1970s and 80s when paedophile priests abused dozens of children.
Pell, who revealed Pope Francis was being given a summary of each day’s evidence, admitted a boy complained to him in 1974 about Christian Brother Edward Dowlan.
He said the boy “mentioned it casually in conversation” that Dowlan was “misbehaving” with boys and he ran the rumours past a school chaplain but did nothing more.
“With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more,” he said when told Dowlan, who is in jail, went on to abuse many children.
Pell has claimed at least two archbishops and other people in authority all deceived him by not revealing what was happening during a period of what he called “crimes and cover-ups”.
Asked Thursday if he felt the attention on him amounted to a witch-hunt, he replied: “I have never expressed such a view but I must confess the idea has occurred to me.”
He called the congregation of at least five paedophile priests in Ballarat at the same time in the 1970s a “disastrous coincidence”.
Another notorious priest based in Ballarat was Gerald Ridsdale, who Pell once shared church accommodation with.
Pell again denied trying to buy the silence of Ridsdale’s nephew David, who was abused by his uncle.
“That certainly did not happen because I would certainly remember it,” said Pell, who accompanied Ridsdale to court as part of what he called his “Christian duty”, when the priest was convicted of more than 100 charges of sexual abuse against children.
Pell, who denies knowing about Ridsdale’s abuse, also again dismissed allegations “as demonstrably false” that he was once heard saying to a fellow priest: “Haha, I think Gerry’s been rooting boys again.”
– ‘Lied to’ –
On Tuesday, the head of the Vatican Treasury told the commission the crimes of Ridsdale were “not of much interest” to him at the time, a statement he backpedalled from Thursday.
“I remember messing up this sequence completely. I regret the choice of words. I was very confused, I responded poorly,” he said.
A group of abuse survivors who travelled to Rome to witness the testimony said they did not believe Pell.
“We feel we have been deceived and lied to,” the group said, reading a statement outside the hotel where Pell was giving evidence and where they hope to hold a meeting with him.
“The royal commission at some stage in the future will give a recommendation on the evidence given by George. We feel George has not been honest nor truthful. George will have to live with this chosen course.”
Pell rebuffed allegations he was lying during his testimony.
“I’d say that is completely untrue and unjustified by any evidence,” he told the commission, adding that some of the stories from survivors were harrowing.
“One of the other things I regret as a Catholic priest is the damage that these crimes do to the faith of the survivors, of the victims and their friends and family and generally throughout society. I lament that,” he said.
Australia ordered the Royal Commission in 2012 after a decade of growing pressure to investigate allegations of widespread paedophilia.
It has spoken to almost 5,000 survivors and heard claims of abuse involving churches, orphanages, community and youth groups and schools.