The last word on George Pell

Last Word Pell Knew

Title: The last word on George Pell

Author: Anne Manne

Publisher: The Monthly

Date: Jun2020

The royal commission’s damning verdict on what Pell knew about child sexual abuse in the Church

What did Cardinal George Pell know about child sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy, when did he know it, and what did he do about it?

For years now, there have been two separate questions of culpability concerning Cardinal Pell. The first, whether he was guilty of the crime of sexually assaulting two boys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 and 1997, riveted and divided the nation during the sensational events of Pell’s trial, his conviction and imprisonment, and his failed attempt to have his conviction quashed by the Victorian Court of Appeal. On April 7 this year, the unanimous High Court decision to acquit him on all charges ended it all.

As Pell supporters rejoiced, child sexual abuse survivors expressed anguish. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews made no comment on the High Court decision, but expressed the views of many in the community when he said simply to Victim J, “I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”

Not being seen, heard or believed was the fate of so many victims of institutional child sexual abuse. This constitutes the second crucial question concerning Cardinal Pell’s culpability: his role in the response of the Catholic Church to child sexual abuse. In the royal commission volumes, everything concerning this grave matter was blacked out, to avoid prejudicing any court. Cardinal Pell told the royal commission that he knew nothing and was “deceived” in a world “of crimes and cover-ups”, where he was deliberately kept in the dark by others because he was known to be the kind of chap who “disturbed the status quo”. Following Pell’s acquittal, the royal commission released its findings on these claims.

Its conclusion is straightforward: Pell knew. He was not deceived. Pell’s claims to have been kept in the dark were “implausible”. He knew about notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale’s offending as early as 1973, and was concerned about “the prudence of allowing Ridsdale to take boys on overnight camps. The most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child then they could sexually abuse a child or at least provoke gossip …”

Just what Ridsdale might do to a child on an overnight stay was revealed in a recent court case. On May 14 this year, Ridsdale pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of yet more children during the 1970s, some as young as seven. He has now been convicted for 179 offences against 69 children. Sentenced to another 10 years, some to be served concurrently, Ridsdale will serve 34 years. Judge Mullaly’s devastating judgement describes how Ridsdale took a 12-year-old boy to Apollo Bay, Victoria, during the Christmas holidays of 1974. He gave the boy more than four cans of beer, making him very drunk. The boy woke up in bed naked, to find Ridsdale forcibly “penetrating his anus. You continued to do that dreadful act, causing intense pain to the victim, until you ejaculated. You then just got up and left him bleeding from his anus and distraught.”

It is only by confronting the brute reality of what happened to victims – “abuse” is altogether too pallid and vague a word – that we can understand the moral enormity and impact of what the royal commissioners have called the “inexcusable” conduct on the part of those in the Church who acted as protectors of offenders such as Ridsdale. Ridsdale is known to have begun offending in Ballarat, as early as 1961 when he was first ordained. He raped children all over Victoria until at least 1988. Nothing was done. He even abused kids while under “treatment” in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick, in Sydney, and in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Why wasn’t he stopped in his vicious tracks?

The answer lies in the behaviour of Bishop Ronald Mulkearns of the Ballarat diocese, and his advisory body, the College of Consultors. Under the euphemism “Staffing”, the bishop met with the College of Consultors who repeatedly agreed to move Ridsdale on to new posts, often in quick succession. Each time, Ridsdale violated fresh crops of children. In 1982, Pell was a consultor when they had to consider why Ridsdale was moving yet again from Mortlake to the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney. In Mortlake, Ridsdale abused multiple children and was living with Paul Levey, then 14, and sexually assaulting him daily.

Cardinal Pell denied to the royal commission that the College of Consultors was ever told of the real reason Ridsdale moved from Mortlake or had so many sudden moves. Contrary to this, the commission found: “Bishop Mulkearns did not deceive his consultors. Cardinal Pell’s evidence that ‘paedophilia was not mentioned’ and that the ‘true’ reason was not given is not accepted … Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale … because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. A contrary position is not tenable … It follows that the conduct of any consultor … who agreed to move Ridsdale, or indeed any priest, with knowledge of allegations of child sexual abuse made against them, is unacceptable.”

The commission gives a devastating indictment of the “catastrophic failure” on the part of senior clergy in the Ballarat diocese, including Pell, “over decades, to effectively respond to sexual abuse of children by its priests”. It caused “suffering and often irreparable harm [that] … could have been avoided if the Church had acted in the interests of children rather than in its own interest … the avoidance of scandal, the maintenance of the reputation of the Church and loyalty to priests alone determined the response.” Behaviour with abusing priests was “remarkably and disturbingly similar”. And only when a priest’s behaviour might become “widely known” did anything happen.

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