Pell says meeting with Australia abuse survivors was 'hard and honest'

Australia’s most senior Catholic meets 12 survivors of sexual abuse by priests in his native Ballarat

Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, has vowed to help survivors of sexual abuse in his native Ballarat in Australia after meeting a dozen abuse survivors for more than two hours, which he described as “hard” and “emotional”.

It came after four nights of intense questioning via video link by a royal commission in Australia that revealed he had never pursued rumours of clerical abuse by priests.

In his controversial testimony, Pell never wavered from his claim that he was kept in the dark about the abuse committed by one of the worst paedophile priests in recorded history, Gerald Ridsdale, even though other senior officials were aware of it. Some of his statements were deemed “completely implausible” by Gail Furness, the counsel who questioned him.

While the cardinal’s testimony was largely dismissed as “dishonest” by the group of survivors from Australia who travelled almost 10,000 miles to Rome to hear him testify, at least one said he believed Pell would help abuse survivors going forward, particularly in areas that required the church’s financial support. The commission is studying institutional responses to child abuse and the Catholic church has been the subject of an intense investigation.

Pell, who is considered one of the Vatican’s top officials and has oversight of the church’s finances, said after meeting the survivors: “I heard each of their stories and their suffering. It was a hard and honest and occasionally emotional meeting.

“We all want to try to make things better, actually and on the ground,” Pell said in a statement that he read in front of journalists waiting for him at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome.

He also said he would work with a special Vatican commission to protect minors that was created by Francis in 2014. In Pell’s testimony, he seemed to have only passing knowledge of the committee’s work.

Last year, Pell had a tussle with an abuse survivor, Peter Saunders, who was previously an active member of the committee before Saunders accused Pell of being “almost sociopathic” in his approach to victims. Saunders was, in effect, removed from the committee after criticising it for not doing enough to intervene in ongoing cases, which the committee argued was not in its purview.

While Pell warned that he “shouldn’t promise what might be impossible”, he said he wanted it to be known that he supported the potential creation of a research centre in Ballarat that would “enhance healing and improve protection”.

After four days of intense questioning that revealed Pell did not necessarily consider the protection of children his responsibility – nor an issue he was particularly interested in – the emotional weight of the moment was captured by Anthony Foster, the father of two victims of abuse.

Anthony Foster shows a photo of his two daughters, Emma and Kate
Anthony Foster shows a photo of his two daughters, Emma and Kate, who were both abused by the same Catholic priest. Photograph: Riccardo De Luca/AP

Standing before journalists on Thursday, Foster – who did not meet Pell – held up an old photograph of his two daughters, Emma and Kate, dressed in identical blue check dresses with white collars, aged about five and six when the photograph was taken.

Foster said: “These are my girls, it is what it is all about. A Catholic priest was raping them when this photo was taken. That’s why we’ve been fighting for so long.”

Then he held up another photo of his entire family. “This was my perfect family. And the church destroyed it,” he said.

One of Foster’s daughters committed suicide and another was left severely disabled after an accident. Asked what he wanted the church to do now, Foster said: “[Show] humility, doing everything they can to restore the lives of all the victims out there.”

He added that the church, which has always said it is working to address the legacy of abuse, has offered “only words”.

The group of survivors who met Pell issued only a short statement. “We’ve had an extremely emotional meeting with Cardinal Pell. We met on a level playing field … we are going to go now and we are going to rest,” said one.

He added that an attempt to arrange a meeting with the pope was “in motion”. The Vatican has not announced whether Francis will meet the survivors before their return to Australia on Friday.

Pell also had a one-on-one meeting with a survivor named Philip Nagle, who was abused when he was a student at St Alipius Christian Brothers primary school in Ballarat by priest Stephen Farrell.

Nagle had already told reporters he did not believe Pell had been honest or truthful in his royal commission testimony. But on Thursday, he said his meeting with the cardinal had been “quite good” once Pell realised that Nagle wanted to talk about the future rather than the past.

“When you talk about helping survivors going forward, unfortunately that does – when you talk about those things – it covers money. It involves counselling, keeping our fellow survivors alive going forward. I actually think he gets that bit,” Nagle said.

The Australian group who came to Rome are not concerned solely with accountability for Pell, but also ensuring that the Catholic church responds to the ongoing needs of survivors, particularly when it comes to providing counselling sessions. Some have been limited to five or 10 sessions before being cut off.

“He agrees that the church do need to do more, that they do need to identify good counselling, that they do need to provide the funds going forward to make sure you don’t just get five meetings with a counsellor, that you get what you need to bring you up that step in the ladder towards healing,” he said.

Asked whether Pell could emerge from the intense questioning by the royal commission as an unlikely champion of survivors, Nagle was unequivocal.

“No, I think George will be able to instruct, but perhaps after the hearing, I don’t know where he goes in his role or whether he has the confidence of people to believe he is going to do what he is going to do,” Nagle said.

Not everyone who made the journey to Rome from Australia cared to meet the cardinal. Paul Levey, a survivor of abuse committed by Ridsdale, said: “The Australian people have no respect for him after listening for four days, so anything he has to say the Australian people will not take seriously.”


Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Tim Minchin says George Pell should wash feet of child sex abuse survivors
The songwriter and comedian releases statement as survivors of child sexual abuse in Ballarat head to Rome for public hearing of royal commission

Guardian staff

26, Feb, 2016 @9:27 AM

Article image
George Pell: church had 'predisposition not to believe' children who complained about priests
In evidence to royal commission on child sex abuse, cardinal admitted he had been ‘strongly inclined’ to accept Catholic priests denials’ of allegations

Ben Doherty in Sydney and Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome

29, Feb, 2016 @2:05 AM

Article image
Cardinal George Pell trial a 'turning point', says survivors' rights group
Question in Rome is now whether Pope Francis is prepared to take tougher action against accused priests

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome

01, May, 2018 @4:00 PM

Article image
Incurious George: Pell heard talk of sex abuse by priests, but 'rarely indulged' rumours | David Marr
In evidence to the royal commission, the cardinal acknowledged to a greater extent than before that he had heard complaints of abuse in the diocese of Ballarat, writes David Marr

David Marr

29, Feb, 2016 @6:07 AM

Article image
George Pell to meet child abuse survivors after four days of hearings end
David Ridsdale says group due to meet the cardinal will be ‘diplomatic and dignified’ as Vatican stays silent on request for audience with Pope

Ben Doherty

03, Mar, 2016 @4:36 AM

Article image
Police send sexual abuse brief about George Pell to prosecutors
Australia’s most senior Catholic denies all allegations of abuse, which will be reviewed by Department of Public Prosecutions

Melissa Davey

07, Feb, 2017 @12:16 AM

Article image
George Pell takes leave from Vatican to fight sexual abuse charges in Australia
The cardinal, the third highest-ranking figure in the Vatican, said he was the victim of ‘relentless character assassination’

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome and Melissa Davey in Melbourne

29, Jun, 2017 @6:45 AM

Article image
George Pell evidence: royal commission says victims can be present in Rome
Commission chair finds victims’ request to be in the same room as Pell when he gives evidence is ‘not unreasonable’ and says arrangements will be made

Melissa Davey

21, Feb, 2016 @11:46 PM

Article image
Pope meets George Pell for first time since cardinal's abuse acquittal
Francis may have sought Pell’s view on various allegations against former deputy

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

12, Oct, 2020 @3:59 PM

Article image
Ballarat prepares for child sexual abuse inquiry while Cardinal Pell stays away
‘Pell is the head Catholic figure in the country, and he should be here, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the survivors,’ says lawyer representing victims

Melissa Davey

20, Feb, 2016 @8:53 AM