It was 1993 when Gerard Ridsdale, Australia’s most notorious paedophile priest, was first convicted of child sexual abuse, the beginning of an avalanche of charges over the next 20 years involving more than 50 children, including his nephew, David. As the Ballarat priest headed to court dressed in civilian clothes, wearing dark glasses, he was accompanied by a colleague, George Pell, in the black robes of a priest. The two men once shared a house together in the diocese during the 1970s.
Just three months earlier, David Ridsdale attempted to alert Pell about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle. Pell denies knowing anything about father Ridsdale’s abuse until that point. The cardinal also disputes David Ridsdale’s recollection of their discussions.
Gerard Ridsdale’s first 18-year imprisonment occurred the same year Forrest Gump was released. With apologies to the creators of the much-loved movie, we have learned in recent days that Pell is a lot like the central character in Forrest Gump: his life is strewn with inflection points of historical and moral import; times that reasonable observers look back on now and see, at many points, opportunities to intervene.
But the man at the centre of it all had no idea what was happening around him.
Almost a decade later, in 2003, Pell was made a cardinal, a prince of the Catholic Church, having risen from humble beginnings as a priest in Victoria to where he now finds himself, sitting at the Pope’s side in a job that effectively makes him the Vatican’s treasurer.
If you are to believe his evidence at the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, the cardinal has risen to the top of Catholicism on a tide of unfortunate ignorance, and in spite of more than four decades of conspiracy and calumny directed towards him.
By the end of four days of testimony – 19 hours of questioning – the list of those who conspired against the cardinal reached all the way to the Vatican. Even Rome was against him, Pell declared, as he tried to rid his church of one turbulent paedophile, Father Peter Searson, by forcing his resignation or retirement in 1997, after more than 20 years of abuse.
Searson “fought a good fight” and “Rome found against me… did not support my position,” Pell said. He ignored the Vatican and pressed on regardless, “and Rome didn’t push the point.”
Searson died in 2009, without ever being charged for his crimes.
The royal commission heard that Pell was warned nearly a decade earlier about Searson, but he did not believe he had enough details to take action.
The cardinal also gave evidence on Thursday that as he passed concerns about Searson on to church superiors. “I’m not sure I recommended any particular course of action… I did as I was asked and was happy enough at the time to do just that,” he said.
There is a clear pattern to cardinal Pell’s testimony this week. Either he did not know, did not make further enquiries about what happened or – even if he did hear something – there was not enough to act, or he was powerless to act.
And on the rare occasions he did act, those around him let him down most grievously. The cardinal was adrift in a “world of crimes and cover-ups”, as he described it this week.
Unfortunately for the royal commission, many of those who bear the brunt of blame for deceiving him or failing to act on his advice have died.
Some 45 years ago, unaware of the calamity surrounding him in Ballarat, where he was an assistant priest in the 1970s, Pell was deceived and kept ignorant of the evil being perpetrated by his colleagues.
It was a “disastrous coincidence” there were at least four church-based paedophiles around Ballarat during Pell’s time there and later, as he rose in the church hierarchy and oversaw them, without learning of their crimes.
Parishioners – the abused – are haunted by fevered imaginings of attempts to raise the alarm with Pell.
None of the warnings they claim to have offered him ever happened, the cardinal told the commission.
While he is clear those multiple alerts never occurred, there are many other incidents he cannot recall.
On the very rare occasions a hint of something untoward drifted past, he did not make further enquiries, reassured that those higher up in the church were dealing with the “difficulties” or “problems” adequately.
They hid the details from him, Pell speculated, because he was a man of action and “known to be capable of being outspoken. They might have been fearful of just what line I would take.”
The logic goes that this is why he never needed to be outspoken.
Counsel assisting, Gail Furness, expressed the view that his assertion was “completely implausible” during Wednesday’s evidence.
Commissioner Peter McClellan, appearing exasperated at times, asked: “Is there anything that you did as auxiliary bishop that touched upon priests and allegations, rumours or concerns of child sexual abuse by those priests, that you consider wanting or deficient in any way?”
Pell replied: “I think the matters you raised about ascribing resignations to ill health, that is one area of regret. Other than that, I don’t believe there is.”
In part that explains why he did not act earlier over Season, whose behaviour included taping confessions, pointing a gun at parishioners, and threatening to stab a girl if she moved.
He was “one of the most unpleasant priests I’ve ever met”, the cardinal deduced.
Pell is filled with regret he did not to do more, and filled with concern for those on who suffered at the hands of his colleagues, he reassured everyone.
The cardinal’s compassion also extended to Ridsdale in 1993 as the paedophile pleaded guilty to multiple counts of abusing children, the first of a series of charges over coming years.
The ultimate judgement of God after death is of deep importance to Christians worldwide, and in the Catholic faith, the assurance of its result is immediately tied to how you conduct your life.
When Judgement Day comes, Pell told the commission, your kindness to others, especially prisoners, and “those who are at the bottom of the pile like Ridsdale” is what counts.
The court case was the first time Pell found out about Ridsdale’s behaviour, he said, before conceding in subsequent testimony that Ridsdale’s nephew, David, spoke to Pell three months beforehand about what happened to him.
Pell does not recall any unpleasantness in that discussion with the abuse survivor, especially being told to “fuck off George”.
No one has ever said that to him in 50 years in the church, he said.
Pell now regrets the hurt that may have been caused to others by his standing beside the perpetrator walking into court.
Pell lived with Ridsdale for nearly a year in the 1970s, midway through an abuse spree that, at last count, involved 54 victims dating back to 1961. He also sat on the committee of priests that kept moving Ridsdale between parishes and was vicar of education when Ridsdale was chaplain at St Alipius school – and not the only sex abuse perpetrator there.
‘A different attitude then’
The royal commission has heard that as complaints of abuse by Ridsdale emerged, the church simply foisted him on another parish. That cycle was repeated multiple times.
Pell thought it odd, but did not think to enquire as to why.
And no one filled him in. Everyone in the church let him down.
The cardinal now finds himself to be the subject of a witch hunt – or, at least, that’s a thought that’s crossed his mind, he told the royal commission.
McClellan and the cardinal had the following exchange on Thursday over another abuser, brother Edward Dowlan, about how one child attempted to raise the alarm with Pell.
Dowell was sentenced to 6.5 years in jail last year for abusing 11 boys at four Christian Brothers schools.
McClellan: “That was a very serious matter to be raised with you, wasn’t it?”
Pell: “Yes, that is the case.”
McClellan: “What did you do about it?”
Pell: “I didn’t do anything about it.”
McClellan: “Would you have done something about it?”
Pell: “Well, I eventually did. I eventually inquired with the school chaplain.”
McClellan: “You didn’t go straight to the school and say ‘I’ve got this allegation, what’s going on’?”
Pell: “No, I didn’t.”
McClellan: “Should you have?”
Pell: “With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more.”
McClellan: “Why do you need the experience of 40 years later? Wasn’t it a serious matter then?”
Pell: “Yes, but people had a different attitude then. There was no specifics about the activity, how serious it was and the boy wasn’t asking me to do anything about it but just lamenting and mentioning.”
McClellan: “You and I have had this discussion on more than one occasion: Why was it necessary for people to ask you to do something rather than for you to accept the information and initiate your own response?”
Pell: “Obviously that is not the case and my responsibilities as an auxiliary bishop and director of an educational institute and archbishop, obviously I was more aware of those obligations in those situations than I was as a young cleric. But I … don’t excuse my comparative lack of activity.”
Unkinder souls may think Pell decided it best he not rock the boat on the way to his ascendency to archbishop of Melbourne. But once in the top job, his decisiveness was there for all to see, he argued.
The church was a safer place for his efforts, he told the commission.
The Melbourne Response was his blueprint for the church’s reaction to the growing scandal of abuse in its ranks. It was abuse numerous people tried to raise the alarm about over a sustained period of time, the royal commission has heard repeatedly.
The abuse was so horrific, so pervasive, so sustained, that the details not becoming public until the 1990s almost defies belief.
One of the achievements of the Melbourne Response was capping payouts to abuse victims at $75,000. In the secular world, this focus and success with capping liability make excellent leadership qualities in a business like insurance.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise he’s now in charge of the Vatican’s finances, with a reputation for asking tough questions and demanding answers.
It’s strikingly the opposite to the way he conducted himself as an assistant priest in Ballarat more than 40 years ago.
And sure, people change over time.
In the intervening decades, Pell now asserts he was largely oblivious to the horrific events unfolding around him that would change the world for the victims forever.
As he has proceeded through his testimony, you get the feeling that if the commission asked him had he “found Jesus yet”, he would give the reply Forrest Gump gave to that very question.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir”.
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