Cardinal George Pell was aware of “dozens” of complaints against pedophile priests when he launched the Melbourne archdiocese’s compensation scheme in 1996.
Dr Pell told the child abuse royal commission he originally expected the Melbourne Response, set up to handle claims of clergy sex abuse in the Melbourne archdiocese, would go for six months.
“With some of those groups I took what they said with a grain of salt, but nonetheless there was evidence that something needed to be done to deal with this suffering,” Cardinal George Pell.
“I was aware that there were dozens of complaints that (Vicar General) Monsignor Cudmore was dealing with in, I think, an effective way under great, great pressure,” Cardinal Pell told the commission on Thursday.
“We never anticipated the volume of responses, that it would go on for years.”
Cardinal Pell, appearing via video link from the Vatican in Rome, spoke of being initially sceptical about the groups involved in advocating for the church to investigate scores of allegations of child abuse.
“There were groups such as Broken Rites that were very active,” Cardinal Pell said.
“With some of those groups I took what they said with a grain of salt, but nonetheless there was evidence that something needed to be done to deal with this suffering.”
Ahead of the curve
Cardinal Pell said the capped payments for victims – originally set at $50,000 and later raised to $75,000 – were set in comparison to contemporary standards of compensation, and were “ahead of the curve” and no less generous than any other organisation.
“We did not admit that there was a legal obligation but that, in practice, in the compensation panel we fully accepted our moral responsibility towards those who had suffered.”
More than 300 victims have received payouts under the Melbourne Response compensation scheme since 1996.
Cardinal Pell said the church recognised it had a moral obligation to victims, while adding this fell short of a legal obligation to pay compensation.
“We did not admit that there was a legal obligation but that, in practice, in the compensation panel we fully accepted our moral responsibility towards those who had suffered,” he said.
Commission chair Justice Peter McClellan asked Cardinal Pell to elaborate on why he felt the church had a moral obligation towards abuse victims.
“Because these activities had been committed by officials of the church,” Cardinal Pell said.
He went on to say the Church’s response was “an attempt to lessen suffering and to help these people, and to do it quickly rather than have it drag on for a long time.”
Cardinal Pell said money was never his primary concern when setting up the compensation component of the Melbourne Response.
“My primary concern was to try to help the victims …”
“My primary concern was to try to help the victims, and I regard the other arms of the Melbourne Response as being more important than this particular arm because many victims then and probably now did not have money as their primary concern,” Cardinal Pell said.
Cardinal Pell said $50,000 in 1996 would be worth about $120,000 in 2014.
But senior counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, said given payments are still capped at $75,000, the money paid to victims has gone backwards.
Cardinal Pell said he regarded an increase from $50,000 to $75,000 as a step forwards.
“I myself have never been a fan of caps,” he added.
Pell compares church to trucking company
Cardinal Pell said it would not be appropriate for legal culpability to be “foisted” on church leaders.
He then cited a hypothetical example of a case involving a woman who was molested by a truck driver.
“It would not be appropriate, because it’s contrary to the policy, for the ownership, leadership of that company to be held responsible,” Cardinal Pell said.
“Similarly with the church and the head of any other organisation.
“If every precaution has been taken, no warning has been given, it is, I think, not appropriate for legal culpability to be foisted on the authority figure.
“If in fact the authority figure has been remiss through bad preparation, bad procedures or been warned and done nothing or insufficient, then certainly the church official would be responsible,” the cardinal said.
A lawyer representing Paul Hersbach, a victim of sexual abuse, put it to Cardinal Pell that the church was not a trucking company but an organisation of the highest integrity.
Cardinal Pell said unfortunately some members of the church have not always acted with the highest integrity
“Certainly we should act according to the teachings of Jesus Christ and that was exactly what I was trying to do when I set up the Melbourne Response,” Cardinal Pell said.
“There is a long history of sin and crime within the church and one of the functions of the leadership of the church is to control and eradicate this.”
“There is a long history of sin and crime within the church and one of the functions of the leadership of the church is to control and eradicate this.
“We strove to meet our moral obligations by instituting the first comprehensive scheme here in Australia.”
There was applause in the hearing when Cardinal Pell was asked if the church was standing in the way of full and fair compensation for victims of sexual abuse by priests.
“It is a reasonable suggestion that there is full and fair compensation related of course to the gravity of the offence and the suffering of the victim,” he said.
But Cardinal Pell said if the church had been warned about a priest or had bad policies or procedures in place, “then certainly the church official would be responsible”.
Justice McClellan asked Cardinal Pell whether, when the compensation scheme was set up, he was fully aware of the potential for lifelong damage for children abused by their priest.
“Obviously my understanding has deepened with the years but I did understand then something significantly about the level of suffering, and for that reason the access to counselling was uncapped from our point of view,” Cardinal Pell said.
“Your honour, I have been wrestling with the problem for 18 years.
“I have met many victims who have suffered enormously, some few very hostile.
“I have heard the stories of terrible suffering in some cases.
“The Fosters girls is one such case (and) of course if you deal with this thing regularly and over a long period, you come to understand better and better the suffering that is caused.”
Christine and Anthony Foster’s two daughters were raped by notorious abuser Father Kevin O’Donnell.
They were critical of the church’s response, and won a $750,000 settlement from the Melbourne archdiocese.