The child sexual abuse royal commission in 2020 released a bombshell un-redacted report examining the failings of George Pell during his time as an assistant priest, bishop, auxiliary bishop and cardinal in Australia.
The report found he both knew about child abuse, particularly within the Victorian diocese of Ballarat, and failed to take proper steps to act on complaints about dangerous priests.
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The findings – which Pell always disputed – were arrived at after an exhaustive, five-year royal commission.
Here’s what the commission found about Pell’s conduct.
Pell’s knowledge of child abuse by paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale
Gerald Ridsdale is one of the country’s most notorious paedophile priests.
He 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, and continues to be convicted and sentenced for his crimes, most recently in October.
Pell lived with Ridsdale for a time in the 1970s, accompanied him to court in 1993, and offered to provide character evidence for him.
The royal commission investigated what Pell knew of Ridsdale’s offending while Pell worked in the Ballarat diocese – the centre of Australia’s abuse scandal in the 1970s and 1980s.
It found that, as early as 1973, well before any police investigation, then father Pell had “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,” the commission found. “By this time, child sexual abuse was on his radar, in relation to not only Monsignor Day but also Ridsdale.”
The commission found that, by 1973, Pell was not only “conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy” but that he had “considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it”.
The commission heard that, almost a decade later, Pell was involved in a meeting of the College of Consultors about whether to move Ridsdale from the Mortlake parish in Ballarat to Sydney.
Pell claimed the more senior Catholic figures in the meeting – namely, then bishop Ronald Mulkearns – had deceived him about the true reasons for moving Ridsdale.
The royal commission rejected Pell’s position.
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.”
“It is implausible given the matters set out above that Bishop Mulkearns did not inform those at the meeting of at least complaints of sexual abuse of children having been made.”
Allegations of a bribe to cover up Ridsdale’s crimes
The most damning allegation against Pell – not upheld by the royal commission – was made by David Ridsdale, Gerald Ridsdale’s nephew.
David Ridsdale alleged that in 1983, then bishop Pell offered to bribe him in the hope he would take allegations against his uncle to a church hearing rather than police.
David Ridsdale alleged Pell had said words to the effect of: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.”
David Ridsdale’s two sisters, Patricia Ridsdale and Bernadette Lukaitis, both supported his version, saying he had called them up shortly after the conversation with Pell and recounted the attempted bribe.
The royal commissions rejected the allegation, saying Pell’s words were most likely misconstrued.
“We are not satisfied that Bishop Pell said the words attributed to him or otherwise sought to obtain Mr Ridsdale’s silence. It is more likely that Mr Ridsdale misinterpreted an offer by Bishop Pell to assist as something more sinister,” it found.
Pell’s failure to act on paedophile priest Peter Searson
Paedophile Peter Searson, a parish priest who died in 2009, was accused of abusing children in parishes and schools across three districts for more than a decade.
The royal commission examined the failure of the church to act on numerous complaints about Searson’s conduct. It found that Pell should have advised senior Catholic authorities to remove Searson, who was described as “unstable and disturbed”, in 1989.
Pell had been 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.
Pell said this was not enough information for him to act.
The commission disagreed, saying “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.”
Graeme Sleeman, a former principal of the Holy Family Parish school in Doveton, said he had repeatedly complained about Searson between 1984 and 1986. The complaints were not acted upon by senior parish staff, so he took his complaints higher, to figures within the archdiocese of Melbourne and the Catholic Education Office, asking for meetings and outlining his concerns.
He told the royal commission he had written numerous letters to then archbishop Pell.
He said Pell called him. “George Pell rang me when I was living in Grafton and wanted to know what I wanted after so many letters to him,” Sleeman said.
“[I said:] ‘I want you to go on national TV and to the national press and say the stance I took in Doveton was morally correct and the only one I could take.’ And he hung up.”
During the commission’s hearings Pell conceded that, in retrospect, he might have been “a bit more pushy” about Searson.
“We do not accept any qualification that this conclusion is only appreciable in retrospect,” the commission found.
Pell and the complaint about brother Edward ‘Ted’ Dowlan
Brother Edward “Ted” Dowlan was a notorious Christian Brother paedophile who worked at Ballarat’s St Patrick’s college. He was convicted of 42 counts of child sex offences between 1971 and 1985.
The royal commission heard from Timothy Green, a student at St Patrick’s, who gave evidence about a conversation with Pell in late 1974 at a local swimming pool.
He told the commission: “Father Pell came into the change room and said something like ‘G’day boys’ and went and stood behind us and started getting changed.”
“Then I just said something like, ‘We’ve got to do something about what’s going on at St Pat’s’. Father Pell said, ‘Yes, what do you mean?’ I said, ‘Brother Dowlan is touching little boys’. Father Pell said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ and walked out,” Green said.
The royal commission accepted Green’s evidence.
Pell and the Christian Brother Leo Fitzgerald
The royal commission heard that Pell, while an assistant priest in Ballarat in the mid-1970s, knew that Christian Brother Leo Fitzgerald was taking young boys swimming naked.
He did nothing to report it. But the royal commission said it was not unreasonable for priests not to view it as their responsibility to inform the Christian Brothers of such matters.