Cardinal Pell meets the media after a meeting with survivors    

The Australian media has been in a frenzy this week as the country’s most senior Catholic cleric – and head of Vatican finances – Cardinal George Pell, testified to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

For his supporters he is a man of principles and integrity, but for his critics, Pell was culpably negligent in failing to act on reports of abominable sexual abuse by priests in the dioceses of Ballarat and Melbourne.  

Though no charges have been laid against him, in the court of public opinion he is a guilty man. As Pell wrapped up his testimony via video-link in Rome’s Hotel Quirinale, almost all of the major Australian mastheads condemned him for his gross inaction and mocked his supposed “ignorance” of the abuse. Commentators demanded his resignation and abuse victims decried his lack of compassion.

Yet after reading the transcripts of Pell’s 19 ½ hours in the witness box, it strikes me there are several key issues that have not received sufficient attention.

I am not arguing for Pell’s innocence or guilt. But the proceedings of the Commission are supposed to be fair – the enquiry, after all, should aim at justice.

1. PELL’S CLAIMS that he was unaware of some cases of abuse is not as incredible as some suggest. The Commission and the media have scoffed at this, calling it “implausible” and his narrative of events “extraordinary”. Nevertheless, the Commission has received significant evidence over the past year supporting Pell’s contention that chaos and deception were rife in the administration of Ballarat and Melbourne from the 1970s to early 1990s.

Take the case of notorious paedophile priest Gerard Ridsdale. Various members of the clergy, present and past have said they knew nothing of Ridsdale’s offending. In fact , a well-known Australian political journalist, Paul Bongiorno, is a former priest  who lived with Ridsdale and Pell. He opened up about his experience last year:

“I had no idea what he was up to. And when people look at me quizzically, I say let me tell you this. There are married men and women now who sleep with their husbands and wives and don’t know that their husband or wife is having an affair. Let me tell you that Ridsdale never came to the presbytery in Warrnambool and said, ‘Guess how many boys I’ve raped today’.They hide it. It was certainly hidden from me. And when it came out after I had left the priesthood, I was shocked and I was ashamed.”

The Australian journalist Tess Livingstone comments in her biography George Pell that it was not just the Cardinal who was surprised to hear of Ridsdale’s offending: “other priests, and former priests, who shared presbyteries with Ridsdale say the same thing. So do many parishioners from various parishes where he served”.

Gail Furness, the steely Australian barrister assisting the Commissioner in cross-examination, made much of the claim that Ridsdale’s offending was “common knowledge” and the subject of “rumours”. Yet as a friend of mine who attended the hearings in Rome observed, the assertion seems to imply that it is not just that Pell was guilty, but that there was a systemic guilt in the Ballarat diocese. 

Call it naiveté, but child sexual abuse by clergy was almost unknown phenomenon for priests and bishops. Take the reaction of Geoffrey Robinson, who was ordained as an auxiliary bishop in 1984 in Sydney, three years before Pell. Now retired, he has been openly critical of Cardinal Pell. A rebel who wants the Catholic Church to be open to the ordination of women, to revise its teachings on sex and so on, he has no reason to paint Pell in a good light.

But when he testified to the Royal Commission last August he declared that after 24 years as a priest and three as a bishop, the problem of sex abuse had come as a complete surprise.

“they gave us this talk in November ’87. It was a considerable shock to me, and I believe to many of the other bishops as well, because for the first time it showed us that this was a large‐scale problem present in most places and in most countries, and that I found incredibly shocking.

“I mean, as late as November 1987 I really had no idea that priests could do such things. I had only heard snippets before that, and now, here was the presentation that you couldn’t deny, that it was a large‐scale problem.”

2. IN THE 1980s and 1990s, Pell was deeply unpopular amongst many of his fellow priests. They were intimidated by his bluntness, his loyalty to Rome, and his reforms in the Melbourne seminary. It is completely plausible that he had no inside information on scandalous abuse because he had been excluded from the inner circle of the clergy who ran the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

Sir Frank Little, the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1974 to 1996 was unhappy with Pell’s appointment as an auxiliary bishop and often shut him out of decisions. When asked about Pell’s appointment, Little tersely replied: “others do the choosing”. As Livingstone recounts, “It was no secret that the two men…were often at odds over the Church’s direction, especially in relation to issues like seminary formation, school Catechetics, and the devolution of some of the traditional roles of parish priests”.

In a statement made well before the abuse scandal broke, Pell said of his role as Auxiliary Bishop: “the only decision I have to make every day is which side of bed to get out on”. So much for a position of power.

Pell also clashed with good friends of Little, including the then head of the Jesuits in Melbourne, Fr Bill Uren. These tensions give context to Pell’s claim that Little withheld information from him.

3. THE CATHOLIC Education Office may not have told Pell about the psychopathic Father Peter Searson, the parish priest of Doveton, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. In the closing minutes of the hearing, Pell’s lawyer, Sam Duggan, presented evidence from the former head of the Catholic Education Office, Monsignor Thomas Doyle, specifically stating that the auxiliary bishops of Melbourne had not been briefed about Searson’s behaviour. They were “not part of the decision-making structure in this area [education]” he told the inquiry earlier.

Astonishingly, only one journalist appears to have acknowledged the evidence: “In fairness, we’ve just seen evidence supporting Pell’s claim that he wasn’t told about Searson’s abuse by the Catholic Education Office”, tweeted The Australian’s Dan Box. 

4. IN HER questioning Furness constructed a scenario in which Pell, as an auxiliary bishop, ignored clear signals about Searson’s abuse. Yet Archbishop Little withheld crucial information and – incredibly — teachers from the parish school complained about him but “asked that he be allowed to stay on”.

What isn’t in dispute is this: as Archbishop of Melbourne Pell sacked Searson as soon as he had a clear case. In the closing minutes of the last session, Pell’s lawyer produced a transcript of the interview in which he terminated Searson. It is reveals the quality of Pell’s resolve:

SEARSON: Whatever they have said is fiction.  I’m sure of that.  The Police investigated and they don’t want to take any action. Archbishop Little also decided not to proceed.  In spite of all that, Mr O’Callaghan [the investigator]  took the attitude all the way through … I feel helpless now.

PELL: I need to know whether you are going to retire or not.

SEARSON: I’m prepared to step aside. …  All I want to do is get on with my life as a priest.

PELL:  You don’t seem to understand. Do you accept my invitation to retire and resign or not?

SEARSON: I’m prepared to step aside. The conditions preclude me being a productive priest  …

PELL: …  Retire and resign.

SEARSON: And do nothing?

PELL: Do nothing.

SEARSON: You are asking me to step down and do nothing for doing nothing. Resignation is no problem, but allow me any opportunity to do a little.

PELL: I’m inviting you to resign. If not, I am proceeding canonically to remove you.  I have already taken civil and canonical advice on that.

SEARSON: What about working in another Diocese?

PELL: Any Bishop would consult me and I would advise him of the findings of the Independent Commissioner.

SEARSON: But he could know that the Independent Commissioner was wrong.  So is working in another Diocese a possibility? It does not require your consent.

PELL: It is outside my writ.  But you certainly won’t get a clearance from me

5. THE CARDINAL was under intense pressure. Each day he entered and exited through a media scrum.  He is 74 and has a heart condition. He testified for 19 hours over four nights (Rome time) into the early hours of the morning. The breaks were short. On the final day the cross-examining barristers worked in a relay with relentless and sometimes insolent and provocative questions. “I suggest very directly you are lying about this to protect your own reputation. What do you say about that?” was one of the more brutal ones.

And interrogation of this length and intensity would test anyone’s stamina. It is unfair to judge the Cardinal on occasional slips of the tongue. True, he did say that “It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”  about Ridsdale’s abuse. But these apparently callous words did not represent what he meant and he clarified and withdrew them later.

6. THE MEDIA has painted George Pell as an energetic and ambitious cleric eager for advancement within the Church who lacked compassion for vulnerable victims. This portrait is unrecognisable to people who know him. He showed his considerable empathy in a meeting with the Ballarat survivors who had gone to Rome to attend the hearing immediately after the fourth and final day of testimony.

“I heard each of their stories and of their suffering,” said Cardinal Pell. “It was hard. An honest and occasionally emotional meeting… “I know many of their families and I know of the goodness of so many people in Catholic Ballarat, a goodness that is not extinguished by the evil that was done.” He pledged to support “a research center to enhance healing and to improve protection” in Ballarat.

I don’t know of many men who have the charity and strength to hold a frank and cordial conversation with his fiercest critics straight after four emotionally and physically exhausting days. Pell is a man who talks the talk and walks the walk.  

As I stated initially, my aim is not to exonerate the Cardinal. My point is simply this: the facts and the historical context of Australian sex abuse are complex. Don’t prejudge Pell. Don’t be misled by sound bites. Don’t get swept away by hysteria. Give him a fair go.

Xavier Symons is doing a PhD in bioethics at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.

Xavier Symons is a bioethicist and scholar in residence at the Kennedy Institute for Ethics at Georgetown University.