The former head of the Catholic Church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, had observers at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse gasping during his second day of testimony after saying rumours of repeated abuse by convicted paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale did not interest him.
Cardinal Pell, who now runs finances at the Vatican, and is giving video testimony from Rome because he was too ill to travel, said that while others knew about the abuse, he was kept out of the loop and “ignorant” of any wrongdoing.
Asked whether it was common knowledge that Ridsdale was interfering with children in the Inglewood parish in the 1970s, Pell responded:
“I couldn’t say that I knew that everyone knew. I knew that a number of people did. I didn’t know whether it was common knowledge or it wasn’t.
“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me.”
His comment drew audible gasps from observers, including abuse survivors who’d travelled to Rome to witness first hand the cardinal’s testimony.
Counsel assisting, Gail Furness, asked why he wasn’t interested. Pell replied: “The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret that but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evil that Ridsdale had perpetrated.”
The cardinal has repeatedly denied any knowledge of Ridsdale’s activities. The priest was first jailed in 1994 for sexually abusing 20 boys and a girl over 22 years from 1961. He was convicted subsequently on further abuse charges involving 54 victims in total, including his nephew. Cardinal Pell, then an assistant priest, shared a house with Ridsale in the 1970s.
Subsequent police investigations found that senior church authorities, including the bishop of Ballarat during that era, Ronald Mulkearns, knew about the allegations as Ridsdale was moved from one parish to another, and it was also “common knowledge” in the congregation.
Pell told the royal commission that he only found out about the abuse when Ridsdale was jailed in the 1990s. The cardinal accused Mulkearns, who is dying of cancer and in palliative care, of “gross deception” for not telling him about what was happening.
“Certainly, there was never any discussion in my presence about the dreadful story of Ridsdale,” he told the royal commission.
The cardinal said the bishop’s actions were “grave and inexplicable”.
While he was conscious there were “a series of difficulties” as the church moved the paedophile priest to a new parish five times during the 1970s and ’80s, Pell testified that “it certainly was not stated that those difficulties touched on paedophilia and crimes”.
“They certainly did not mention that the reason he was being shipped was because of paedophilia,” he said.
Asked by royal commissioner justice Peter McClellan why the bishop hadn’t told Pell, the cardinal postulated that Mulkearns “would realise I didn’t know and he did not want me to share in his culpability”.
When council assisting suggested that there was a collective failure by church figures to protect children in the area during that time, cardinal Pell called it a “misleading overstatement”, arguing it was “improper to put responsibility” on people who were “ignorant” of what was happening.
The cardinal returns for a third day of testimony on Wednesday morning.