Note: this article mentions child sexual abuse.
Cardinal George Pell, deceased, once told a World Youth Day audience that “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests abusing young people”. He was responding to a question; it is so often in the unscripted remark that we glimpse a person’s central truth.
Since Pell can no longer be defamed, the rush to define him is on. I don’t subscribe to the policy of not speaking ill of the dead, but we should still stick to the facts. On those, there are enough to pass judgment on what Pell was, and what he was not.
Pell was charged with multiple child sexual offences and convicted. He was acquitted by the High Court on appeal. His entitlement to the presumption of innocence was thus restored, and remains in place following his death. It is a presumption, not a declaration — an important distinction — but the law and our social contract dictate that the question is left where it landed: not guilty. It is better that we respect that.
We need not respect Pell, however. The public record of his actions and inactions as a senior cleric of the Catholic Church in Australia speaks loudly, channelling the unheard cries of the church’s child victims.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made numerous factual findings regarding Pell’s knowledge of serial child sexual abuse by other priests and what he did about it. It found that, by 1973, Pell — then a priest in Ballarat and sharing a house with the notorious predator Gerald Ridsdale — “was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but had also considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it”.
Ridsdale was constantly moved from one parish to the next, as his flagrant predation would trigger outcry. It was standard practice by the church, certainly in the 1970s, to deal with its paedophile priests in this way. The commission found that by 1977 Pell knew what Ridsdale had been doing.
In 1982, Ridsdale was still operating and still being protected. Pell claimed that, in a meeting of senior clergy regarding Ridsdale’s removal from Mortlake parish, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns lied to him about the reason. The commission didn’t believe that, concluding that Pell was aware of the truth.
Peter Searson was another notorious priestly predator, known to Pell in the 1980s. The commission found that Pell should have advised church authorities to remove Searson but did not do so.
In 1974, the commission found, Pell was approached by a victim of another paedophile, Christian Brother Edward Dowlan. Pell’s response was to say “Don’t be ridiculous” and walk away. Pell conceded that he took no action.
In 1993, Ridsdale was finally charged with child sex offences (he was ultimately convicted of crimes against 65 children). At his first court appearance, he was accompanied by Pell as a supporter. Pell later said this was a mistake, but he had gone along to help Ridsdale secure a lesser punishment.
In 1996, Pell became archbishop of Melbourne. By then, claims by victims were beginning to pour into the church, and Pell instituted the “Melbourne Response” to investigate allegations of sexual abuse within the archdiocese. It was designed primarily to limit the church’s financial exposure (the cap was $50,000 for each claimant) and silence victims. It largely succeeded in these aims.
In 2001, Pell moved to the Sydney Catholic archdiocese, where the church spent more than $1 million defending an abuse claim by John Ellis. The commission found that the primary motivation was to discourage other claimants. Pell championed the so-called “Ellis defence”, a legal technicality that rendered the church institution immune from the consequences of the abuses perpetrated by its priests (essentially on the basis that the church didn’t exist as a responsible legal entity).
As for what Pell himself thought, he spent a lot of time in various witness boxes and press conferences and wasn’t shy about defending his actions.
Chrissie and Anthony Foster were the parents of two girls raped by Father Kevin O’Donnell. By his own admission, when the Fosters approached him, he offered them a small payment and warned them that if they sued the church it would “strenuously” defend the claim. While denying that this was intended to menace them, Pell explained that “we did not encourage people across the board to seek compensation through the courts”.
Giving evidence to the commission in 2014, Pell argued that the church’s responsibility for child sexual abuse by its priests was no greater than that of a “trucking company” whose driver had raped a hitchhiker.
During the commission hearings, Pell was asked whether he knew, at one point in the 1970s, that Ridsdale’s offending was common knowledge. Pell replied: “I don’t know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn’t. It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
The objective truth about Pell is in his own words. He rose to the second-highest rank in the Catholic Church, during a period when child sexual abuse by priests was rampant and endemic, as it had no doubt always been, but now it was beginning to be exposed. He knew about it, was close to several of the worst serial perpetrators, was directly involved in the decisions to move them around rather than address (or report) their crimes, then personally crafted and managed the church’s institutional response to victims. He was, for decades, at the epicentre of the problem.
Pell knew, but he didn’t consider it at any stage to be a high priority. Morally or legally, child sexual abuse was never the most important issue on his ecclesiastical plate.
The conclusion is inevitable: Pell didn’t particularly care. He never saw the children who had been abused by priests, many of whom killed themselves, all of whose lives were destroyed, as his problem, except to the extent that they presented a financial and reputational risk to the church he obviously loved.
Consequently, Pell always followed his first instinct: protecting the rapists rather than the raped. Suffer the little children to come unto me.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000.
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Correction: This article previously referred to Edward Dowlan as a “Catholic priest”, which was incorrect. Dowlan was a Christian Brother.