Former prime minister Tony Abbott has described George Pell, a man found to have failed to act on knowledge of child abuse, as “the greatest man I’ve ever known”, likening him to a saint and comparing his treatment to “modern-day crucifixion”.
Abbott spoke at Pell’s funeral on Thursday and variously described him as “one of our country’s greatest sons”, a “great hero” and a “saint for our times”.
The exhaustive child abuse royal commission found Pell both knew about child abuse, particularly within the Victorian diocese of Ballarat, and failed to take proper steps to protect children from dangerous priests.
Pell also set up the Melbourne response – a scheme that locked survivors into low compensation amounts while waiving their right to sue – and led the archdiocese of Sydney when it formulated the Ellis defence. The Ellis defence allowed the church to avoid liability for the devastating impact of rampant child abuse within its ranks.
Abbott made no mention of the royal commission findings, but did rail against Pell’s own prosecution and conviction for child abuse, which was later overturned on appeal.
Abbott said Pell was “made a scapegoat for the church itself”. Pell’s ability to accept this “modern-day crucifixion” was the “heroic virtue that makes him to my mind, a saint for our times”, Abbott said.
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“He should not have been charged in the absence of corroborating evidence and should never have been convicted in the absence of a plausible case, as the high court so resoundingly made plain,” Abbott said.
Abbott called for “Pell study courses, Pell spirituality courses, Pell lectures, Pell high schools and Pell university colleges, just as there are for the other saints”.
“The ultimately triumphant life of this soldier for truth to advance through smear and doubt to victory should drive a renewal of confidence throughout the Universal Church,” Abbott said.
The royal commission made a series of damning findings about Pell. It found that he was involved in a decision to move Australia’s worst paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale from the Mortlake parish in Ballarat to Sydney. It found that it was implausible that he and others involved in moving Ridsdale were not informed of complaints that he was abusing children.
It found Pell had enough information to act to remove paedophile Peter Searson, a parish priest working in Victorian schools, but did nothing. That’s despite learning of his violent and alarming behaviour towards children, and knowing of a prior generalised complaint of sexual misconduct.
“These matters … ought to have indicated to Bishop Pell that Father Searson needed to be stood down,” the royal commission found.
“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.”
Pell was also found to have been dismissive of children who complained to him that Brother Edward “Ted” Dowlan, a notorious Christian Brother paedophile who worked at Ballarat’s St Patrick’s college, was “touching boys”.
The royal commission accepted evidence that Pell told the boys not to be “ridiculous” before walking away.
Of Pell’s efforts on clergy abuse, Abbott said: “Far from being an apologist, or a dissembler, about the sins of the church, personal, financial or intellectual, he was their hammer,” he said. “The church is always in need of reform. And here in Australia, he was the first archbishop to sack misbehaving clergy and report them to the police, rather than hide them in another parish.”