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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald
Helen Gregory

Old wounds reopened: Hunter survivors in pain after Cardinal George Pell's death

LEARNING about Cardinal George Pell's death, Scott Hallett felt exasperated.

"I've just gone 'He's another one that's got away with it'," said Mr Hallett, a clerical abuse survivor who closely followed Cardinal Pell's appearances at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

"There was information there that he was involved with covering up [abuse] and he gets away with it now.

"He'll get full honours as a cardinal and all this rubbish and people just don't know three quarters of the stuff about him and yet now it's all going to be forgotten.

"What are they going to do with the Royal Commission now?

"Come out and say 'He did this and he did that'?

"Well it's a bit late now the guy's died."

Gerard McDonald and Scott Hallett, who said the news of Pell's death had "probably set me off more than [my abuser Vince] Ryan's". "Ryan had been dealt just about every card that there was, [Pell hadn't]." Picture by Max Mason-Hubers

Cardinal Pell, the former Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and Archbishop of Sydney, died aged 81 on Tuesday in Italy.

He was Australia's most senior Catholic and the Vatican's top finance minister before he left Rome in 2017 to stand trial in Melbourne for child sexual abuse offences.

In 2018, Cardinal Pell was convicted of molesting two teenage choirboys while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.

He maintained his innocence and in 2020 his convictions were quashed in a unanimous decision by the High Court. He'd spent 405 days in jail.

The Royal Commission found Cardinal Pell knew a Victorian priest was moved because he had sexually abused children and should have pushed for another's removal.

Clergy Abused Network chair Bob O'Toole said he believed Cardinal Pell "failed the Catholic population, particularly of Australia, in his handling of childhood sexual abuse claims".

"He was instrumental in the construction of the Melbourne Response which was structured to keep a cap on settlement amounts, it disadvantaged people significantly and he certainly didn't treat survivors well."

The Royal Commission rejected Cardinal Pell's evidence that he was deceived and lied to by Catholic Church officials about Australia's worst paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale and Melbourne parish priest Peter Searson.

The findings related to his 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.

The commission said it was 'satisfied that by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it'.

"This Royal Commission seems like a complete waste of time," Mr Hallett said.

"Yes we have garnered awareness and support but at the end of the day everybody who was named has gotten away with it.

"That's the frustrating thing that gets me cranky.

"You can see why people don't bother because all the money that was spent on this, all the information they've got and [hardly anyone] has been charged out of the Royal Commission... and what happens now?

"If you got him, that was the pinnacle.

"All these guys are going to die and they're going to die with full honours and then people are going to go 'You're just saying that after they're dead, they can't defend themselves'.

"Now we're back to square one and all that Royal Commission work has almost amounted to nothing now because we're not acting on it... making some of these people account for it is just not happening.

"You bang your head up against the wall. It can't be that flaming hard... he wasn't even questioned."

Gerard McDonald - who went with Mr Hallett to police in 1995 about their abuse at the hands of Vincent Ryan, who preyed on them while they were altar boys at St Joseph's Merewether - said he felt "really angry" after learning of Cardinal Pell's death.

"[It triggers] a lot of anger against people who were in power who should have done something for us survivors instead of just 'We don't know what to do, we'll just leave it'," he said.

"Since the Royal Commission, despite the millions and millions of dollars they've spent, nothing has ever been done and none of them ever charged with conspiracy... it's like they're untouchable, still, in 2023.

"George Pell should have been charged for covering up... the people who covered up are just as bad as the perpetrators if not worse.

"He's taken all the secrets to the grave."

Mr O'Toole said Cardinal Pell was a controversial figure and his death would reopen old wounds.

"I think survivors generally won't be sorry to see him go and that will bring forth some savage commentary I would expect," he said.

"He still had his supporters and he had people in high places that were allegedly friends of his."

Mr O'Toole said Cardinal Pell's acquittal in 2020 had devastated survivors.

"For those people who were involved in that trial and now the overturning of that, there is no closure for those people, they'll wear that for the rest of their days," he said.

Geoffrey Nash, whose brother Andrew died by suicide aged 13 after suspected abuse, questioned Cardinal Pell's actions after his acquittal.

He said he never stood down as a cardinal, nor was he replaced with another Australian cardinal.

"George Pell spent the remainder of his life overseas in Rome living in luxury instead of doing what the Roman Catholic faith teaches, which is working with poor people," Mr Nash said.

"As [my mother] Audrey said, he never came to the Hunter Valley and tried to help survivors.

"His leadership of the Australian Roman Catholic Church was an abysmal failure in terms of the abuse of Catholic children in their care.

"We had the Special Commission of Inquiry in 2013 and then the Royal Commission, case studies, all the problems we've had up here, he never came here once and worked with survivors and their families.

"He didn't do that anywhere... was he scared he was going to get into more trouble?"

Mr Nash said he wasn't surprised that Cardinal Pell wasn't prosecuted following the Royal Commission's findings.

"The reality is a cardinal is so big and so powerful, it's like trying to arrest the Prime Minister or the CEO of BHP," he said.

"Somebody said to me once it's like going after a member of the royal family, it's not the same, the amount of power and the amount of people who are invested - a good example is George Pell used to have dinner regularly with [former] Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

"He was that sort of guy."

Mr Nash said Cardinal Pell left a "trail of destruction in his wake".

"Luckily he was never up here... the church obviously thinks Cardinal Pell is going to heaven, well what about all the poor survivors that are already up there?

"How does God welcome Cardinal Pell into the fold? Is he forgiven for what he's been involved in?"

Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle administrator Father Greg Baker said Cardinal Pell was rector of Corpus Christi College, Melbourne, the seminary where he had trained.

"Always controversial, George was a decisive leader and I remember him as a good leader of the seminary," Father Baker said.

"Many will be saddened by his passing.

"We will respect the grief of those he leaves behind, his brother and family and his many friends both here and overseas.

"We pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Pell, comfort for his family and for all of those who loved him."

There will be services for Cardinal Pell at the Vatican and St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney.

Lifeline 13 11 14

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