Previously redacted findings from the commission’s report into Pell’s handling of child sexual abuse claims have now been made public
Cardinal George Pell was aware of children being sexually abused within the Archdiocese of Ballarat, Australia’s child abuse royal commission found, and it was “implausible” that other senior church figures did not tell Pell abuse was occurring.
More than 100 previously redacted pages of the child abuse royal commission report relating to Cardinal George Pell and what he knew about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church were tabled to parliament on Thursday morning.
While the commission delivered its final report to parliament in December 2017 following a comprehensive five year inquiry into abuse in institutions throughout Australia, survivors and advocates have been forced to wait for the findings relating to Pell because of legal action against him. There was concern the findings would prejudice a jury, so they were withheld. Pell was acquitted in April of child sexual abuse charges and released from jail, clearing the way for the report to be made public.
The commission heard allegations in 2015 that when Pell was a priest in Ballarat, he tried to bribe a child sexual abuse victim, David Ridsdale, to keep quiet about his molestation at the hands of his uncle and then priest, Gerald Francis Ridsdale.
“George then began to talk about my growing family and my need to take care of their needs,” David Ridsdale told the royal commission. “He mentioned how I would soon have to buy a car or house for my family.” Pell repeatedly said he was not aware that Gerald Ridsdale was abusing children at the time.
But the royal commission found: “We are satisfied that in 1973 Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of Ridsdale taking 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 about such a prospect. By this time, child sexual abuse was on his radar, in relation to not only Monsignor Day but also Ridsdale. We are also satisfied that by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it.”
We do not accept that Bishop Pell was deceived, intentionally or otherwise Royal commission finding
The commission said, however, it was not satisfied that Pell sought to obtain David Ridsdale’s silence. “It is more likely that Mr Ridsdale misinterpreted an offer by Bishop Pell to assist as something more sinister,” the commission found. “There is no compelling reason for the then bishop to make such a statement. Knowledge about Ridsdale’s offending was widespread in the community, as we have set out earlier in this report. Finally, Mr Ridsdale’s interpretation of the discussion is not consistent with him seeking a private process.”
Gerald Ridsdale committed more than 130 offences against children as young as four between the 1960s and 1980s, including while working as a school chaplain at St Alipius boys’ school in Ballarat. He is now in prison.
Pell, who supported Ridsdale during his first court appearance for child sex offences in 1993, has always denied knowing of any child abuse occurring in Ballarat while he worked there as a priest and with a clerical group called the College of Consultors during the 1970s and 1980s. Pell also spent time living with Gerald Ridsdale in 1973, but has said he had no idea he was a paedophile.
The commission has previously heard Pell was involved in a College of Consultors decision to move Ridsdale from the Mortlake parish in Ballarat to Sydney in 1982. Evidence from the hearings has revealed priests and clergy staff accused of abusing children within the archdiocese of Melbourne were sometimes “dealt with” by the church by transferring them to other parishes. Pell said senior figures around him deceived him about the extent of abuse within the Catholic church.
But the commission found: “We are satisfied that Cardinal Pell’s evidence as to the reasons that the CEO deceived him was implausible. We do not accept that Bishop Pell was deceived, intentionally or otherwise”.
Pell had told the commission that investigating paedophile priest Peter Searson was not his responsibility because he believed the Catholic Education Office and the Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, were handling allegations that Searson was abusing children. Pell gave evidence that he was handed a list of incidents and grievances about Searson in 1989, which included reports Searson had abused animals in front of children and was using children’s toilets. But Pell said this was not enough information for him to act.
Searson died in 2009 without facing charges. The commission has previously heard he abused children in parishes and schools across three districts over more than a decade, and displayed strange behaviours such as animal cruelty and carrying a gun to school.
The commission found “these matters, in combination with the prior allegation of sexual misconduct, ought to have indicated to Bishop Pell that Father Searson needed to be stood down”.
“It was incumbent on Bishop Pell, as an auxiliary bishop with responsibilities for the welfare of the children in the Catholic community of his region, to take such action as he could to advocate that Father Searson be removed or suspended or, at least, that a thorough investigation be undertaken of the allegations,” the previously redacted findings said.
“It was the same responsibility that attached to other auxiliary bishops and the vicar general when they received complaints. On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989, we found that it ought to have been obvious to him at the time. We found that he should have advised the archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so.”
Many of the findings around Pell and Searson were already public. The commission previously found Pell had the capacity and opportunity to urge the Archbishop to take action against Searson in order to protect the children of the parish and the Catholic community of his region.
Pell’s evidence was that he could not recall recommending a particular course of action to the then Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. During the comission’s hearings Pell conceded that, in retrospect, he might have been ‘a bit more pushy’ with all of the parties involved.
“We do not accept any qualification that this conclusion is only appreciable in retrospect,” the commission found.
Pell told the commission during a separate appearance in 2014 that he originally took comments about the extent of abuse within the church from victims’ rights groups “with a grain of salt”. Facing questions via videolink in Rome about the Melbourne Response, a scheme he introduced to the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne in 1996 when he was Archbishop of Melbourne to investigate sexual abuse claims. He introduced the scheme in 1996 because dozens of sexual abuse complaints had come to the attention of the church, putting it under great pressure, he said.
To date, not one person has been convicted in Australia for the crime of concealment of child sexual abuse. NSW and Victoria have a concealment offence specifically related to child abuse, and in 2019 Tasmania and ACT embedded a general duty in criminal law to report child sexual abuse offences.