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George Pell tells the royal commission he was 'deceived' by senior church officials

Cardinal George Pell gives testimony via video link from Rome, at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Photo: Jeremy Piper

Cardinal George Pell told the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse on Wednesday that senior members of the Catholic church deceived him over the extent of abuse in Victoria.

On the rare occasions where he became aware of any “problems” he was rebuffed by senior clerics or kept in the dark, he claims.

The cardinal told the royal commission he regrets he didn’t do more about any concerns, but that was because he believed any issues were being dealt with by others.

Counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness, put it to Pell that his explanations were implausible.

He denied it.

“So we now have the CEO deceiving you and the archbishop deceiving you and concealing information from you as well as Bishop Mulkearns and one or more of the consultors in the Ballarat diocese?” Furness asked.

Pell said that was correct

“It is an extraordinary position, cardinal,” she responded.

“This was an extraordinary world. A world of crimes and cover ups. And people did not want the status quo to be disturbed,” he said.

Counsel assisting asked whether the cardinal saw himself “as being the person who would disturb the status quo”?

“I not only disturbed the status quo, but when I became archbishop, I turned the situation right around so that the Melbourne Response [the church’s policy on abuse claims] procedures were light years ahead of all this obfuscation and prevarication and deception,” he said, adding that the Catholic church was a much safer place today as a result of his efforts.

On Tuesday, the cardinal denied he had any knowledge of the activities of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, who abused at least 54 children, until his conviction in 1993.

He opened his testimony on Monday with a long list of incidents that occurred during his time as a priest with growing responsibilities in Victoria he could recall.

On Wednesday, his third day of testimony, cardinal Pell was quizzed about other priests who were moved between parishes by senior clergy in response to abuse claims, including brother Edward Dowlan, who was convicted last year of abusing 11 boys over a 15-year period in a number of Catholic schools.

The cardinal said he heard “nothing specific” about Dowlan’s abuse at the time, just a “generalised suggestion, accusation”.

Students had raised the “problem” of Dowlan with him, and the cardinal spoke to the school chaplain about it, but that was as far as his enquiries went.

“In the light of my present understandings, I concede I should have done more,” he said, but didn’t think about it at the time.

Pell said he was “quite content” after being told that the Christian Brothers were dealing with the issue.

Royal commissioner justice Peter McClellan asked cardinal Pell whether it concerned him “that a brother against whom you had heard rumours of sexual activity with children was dealt with by being moved from one place to another?”

“No. One, I didn’t know exactly what he was accused of but… more than 40 years ago I… did not think that was unusual or inappropriate,” Pell replied.

It provoked another difficult exchange over what the cardinal knew at the time, with McClellan attempting to clarify his response, asking “You mean it was not inappropriate to move someone who might be moved to a different location where they could continue to offend but against different children?”

“No, I don’t believe that now and I didn’t believe that then. My whole assumption would – or was that the brothers would be dealing adequately with the matter. I was not aware then of their poor record which I learnt about later in dealing with such things. I presumed that when they shifted him they would have also arranged for some appropriate help.”

Did Pell make any further inquiries at the time, the royal commissioner asked?

“No, I did not,” Pell replied, nor did he tell the bishop.

“I regret that I didn’t do more at that stage,” he said.

The cardinal denied that one of Dowlan’s victims raised the abuse with him, saying he had no recollection of any meeting.

The commission also focussed on father Peter Searson, who died in 2009, whose abuse included pointing a gun at parishioners, stabbing a birds with a screwdriver as children watched, holding a young girl at knifepoint and threatening to stab her if she moved, forcing children to kneel between his legs and recording confessions.

Cardinal Pell described him as “a disconcerting man” and making child kneel before him for confession as “quite abhorrent”.

“At his worst moments he could be described as one of the most unpleasant priests that I’ve met,” he said.

But he told the commission he was unaware of the extent of Season’s abuse and could not recall a meeting at which complaints about Searson were raised.

Among those who kept Pell ignorance was the Catholic Education Office, who the cardinal argued were afraid that he would have responded, because “they realised very clearly I was not cut from the same cloth.”

“I would have asked all sorts of inconvenient questions if I’d been better briefed,” he told the commission.

The cardinal described the archdiocese’s action on Searson as “completely inadequate” and said former Melbourne archbishop Frank Little failed to act.

“I think it’s extraordinary that at the very least there was no official inquiry,” he said.

Little died in 2008.

Pell, who was auxiliary bishop for a decade from 1987 and responsible for the region where Searson operated, said he “did not make any specific inquiries about any specific person” during that period and did not investigate further because “I don’t think I was obliged to do anything more than I did, because I took it to the Archbishop”.

Earlier on Wednesday, the cardinal issued a statement saying he was happy to meet with the abuse survivors currently in Rome, but individually or in small groups, without the media or legal representatives present.

“The Cardinal would like to be able to listen to survivors and private meetings offer a good opportunity for this, rather than larger meetings where not everyone may be able to tell their story and emotions can run high,” the statement said.

Some survivors said they rejected the offer because of the conditions imposed on any meetings, including a non-disclosure agreement.

They have asked for a meeting with Pope Francis before they leave Italy on Friday.

The cardinal said he would also try and help with requests to meet with the Pope.

Cardinal Pell will return for a fourth day of testimony from Rome an hour earlier, at 7am AEST on Thursday.

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