A man whose two daughters were raped by a priest has confronted George Pell, telling him “I am a broken man” after the Cardinal’s second day of testimony via video link to the child abuse royal commission.
Cardinal Pell faced the commission from a Rome hotel, drawing gasps from survivors as he declared the crimes of notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale were a “sad story” but “not of much interest” to him at the time.
Anthony Foster’s daughters Emma and Katie were raped by Melbourne priest Father Kevin O’Donnell when they were in primary school in the 1980s.
Mr Foster confronted Cardinal Pell outside the hearing at the Hotel Quirinale, saying he had given up hope the Cardinal would fix the church’s so-called Melbourne Response to the abuse scandal.
“He held my hand for the whole duration of the chat that we had and I expressed to him that he was holding the hand of a broken man, and he put his other hand on me and tried to I suppose connect in some way, but I didn’t feel it,” Mr Foster said.
“Quest over. It was the smooth Cardinal Pell, not the Cardinal Pell we saw on the stand.”
Emma suffered from eating disorders, drug addiction and self harm and in 2008 she overdosed on medication and died at age 26.
Katie became a binge drinker as she reached adulthood and was hit by a drunk driver in 1999. She was left physically and mentally disabled, requiring 24-hour care.
Mr Foster and his wife Christine, who also have another daughter named Aimee, are now Adults Surviving Child Abuse ambassadors.
Cardinal’s response ‘beggars belief’
Cardinal Pell testified on Tuesday that “the suffering, of course, was real, and I very much regret that, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evils” perpetrated by Ridsdale in Victoria in the 1970s and ’80s.
Other survivors said they were taken aback by Cardinal Pell’s comments.
“It beggars belief that he could have said he wasn’t interested in hearing about the crimes of my uncle,” abuse survivor and Ridsdale’s nephew David Ridsdale said.
“We are speaking of moral leaders of towns and cities, and for them to have no interest in such behaviour seems remarkable.”
Fellow survivor Philip Nagle said: “Cardinal Pell is a very astute and a very bright man, so how can he say he didn’t know and he is the one putting the accusations back on his superiors that they lied and deceived him?”
Cardinal Pell denied he knew about the crimes of Ridsdale at the time, saying he was grossly deceived by other senior clergy members as the paedophile priest was shifted from parish to parish.
Cardinal Pell agreed Ridsdale was shifted more than would be usual, but said he did not recall questioning why during a meeting of church consultors in the 1970s, saying “there would have been some generalised explanation”.
“Obviously there was a series of difficulties, but it certainly was not stated that those difficulties touched on paedophilia and crimes,” Cardinal Pell said in relation to Ridsdale’s movements.
“They certainly did not mention that the reason he was being shipped was because of paedophilia.”
Ridsdale was convicted for abusing more than 50 children over 30 years, but the real number could be higher.
He gave evidence before the sex abuse royal commission’s Ballarat inquiry from his jail cell last year, telling the hearing he was “out of control”.
The offences dated back to the 1970s and 80s, when he worked as a priest in much of western Victoria, including Ballarat, Mortlake, Warrnambool, Edenhope and Horsham.
The ABC reported last July that Ridsdale was allowed to continue on as a priest, despite a bishop receiving a complaint about him in his first year.
‘Priests can be the most secretive of people’
Cardinal Pell said he had not been made aware of allegations against Ridsdale in the 1970s, although they were known to both former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns and Monsignor Leo Fiscalini.
He said it was correct he had been deceived by Bishop Mulkearns in relation to Ridsdale, and disagreed he should have heard about the allegations because of his role as a senior clergyman.
“Priests, because they hear confessions, can be and must be about certain matters, the most secretive of people,” he said.
“Certainly, there was never any discussion in my presence about the dreadful story of Ridsdale.”
When asked why Bishop Mulkearns would keep knowledge of Ridsdale’s offending from him, the Cardinal said: “He would realise I didn’t know and he did not want me to share in his culpability.”
Counsel assisting the royal commission Gail Furness asked if Cardinal Pell accepted the church had “collectively failed to protect children in the [1970s and 1980s] in the archdiocese of Ballarat”.
“It was all parish priests, assistant priests, advisers, consultors, who all collectively failed to protect children who were living and under the care of the church in that diocese in the [1970s and 1980s],” she said.
Cardinal Pell said that was a “vast and misleading overstatement”.
“For those who were ignorant, I think it is improper to put responsibility to them.” he said.
Boy living with Ridsdale ‘abused every day’
Ms Furness also asked Cardinal Pell about Ridsdale’s time in Mortlake in the 1980s, specifically about the case of abuse survivor Paul Levey, who was sent to live with Ridsdale aged 14 in 1982.
“He describes [how] he always slept in Ridsdale’s room,” Ms Furness said, adding Mr Levey had been abused almost every day.
Ms Furness said Bishop Mulkearns knew about the situation from several sources, including the boy’s mother.
“Do you think Bishop Mulkearns is just one bad apple, as it were, within the Catholic Church … ?” she asked.
Cardinal Pell said he did not become aware of the incident until “plus or minus 1990” or “in the late [1980s]”, adding Bishop Mulkearns’ “repeated refusal to act is … absolutely extraordinary”.
“I can’t nominate another bishop whose actions are so grave and inexplicable,” he said.
Mr Levey was ultimately removed from Ridsdale’s care by Father Henry Nolan, a first cousin of Cardinal Pell, the commission heard.
Ms Furness said she found it “implausible” Ridsdale’s offences had not been discussed at a consultors meeting in 1982, at which Father Nolan, Bishop Mulkearns and Monsignor Fiscalini were present and it was decided to move Ridsdale from Mortlake to the Catholic Inquiry Centre.
Cardinal Pell said one priest present at the meeting had said the reason for moving Ridsdale was “homosexuality”.
“I knew nothing about his paedophilia, I knew he was a somewhat difficult person and I knew, obviously, that he had been shifted around quite a bit,” Cardinal Pell said.
He said the “moral failures” of another paedophile priest, Monsignor John Day, were explicitly mentioned to consultors and that he would have expected the same would be done for Ridsdale if there had been criminality.
“We do not propose to shift priests, promote them when it has been shown they have engaged in criminal activity,” he said.