CATHOLIC Cardinal George Pell regrets that his appearance at court with serial paedophile Gerald Ridsdale “provoked so much angst” with victims of clergy sexual abuse.
“At that stage nobody knew, at least I certainly didn’t, the extent of what proved to be an infamous career,” the former senior Ballarat diocese official told a state parliamentary inquiry yesterday.
In May 1993, Cardinal Pell accompanied Ridsdale to court in Melbourne, where he pleaded guilty to 30 charges of indecent assault, involving nine boys aged between 12 and 16. It was the first of three court appearances where Ridsdale faced a string of sexual abuse charges, many of them committed in south-west Victoria.
After being heavily criticised for supporting the former priest instead of his victims, Cardinal Pell said at the time Ridsdale “had made terrible mistakes”.
Inquiry chairwoman Georgie Crozier asked Cardinal Pell why he referred to Ridsdale’s crimes as “mistakes”. Cardinal Pell said the comment was “just a suggestion on my lips”.
“This was 20 years ago. I knew there was a very significant number of offences, I didn’t know the details of those offences. I knew that Ridsdale was pleading guilty. His lawyer asked me to appear in court before him.”
Despite living with Ridsdale at a Ballarat presbytery in the early 1970s, Cardinal Pell said he was not a close friend and his support was limited to accompanying the former priest to court.
“I realise that was a mistake ... I’ve always been on the side of victims,” Cardinal Pell said.
Ms Crozier said Cardinal Pell had described walking into court as an act of “priestly solidarity” in the past and asked him what he meant.
“Priests regularly visit people in jails. He was at the absolute bottom of the pile,” Cardinal Pell said.
“I’ve never been asked by a victim to accompany them to court as a support. I don’t think it’s likely. I certainly would have done so if I was asked.”
He admitted the church had dealt with child sex abuse “imperfectly” and had not understood the damage being done to victims.
Cardinal Pell said the sodomy of children was always regarded as totally reprehensible.
“If we’d been gossips, which we weren’t ... we would have realised earlier just how widespread this business was,” Cardinal Pell said.
He agreed the church was slow to address the anguish of the victims and deal with cases.
“The primary motivation would have been to respect the reputation of the church,” he said.
“There was a fear of scandal.
“Many in the church just did not understand what damage was being done to the victims.”
It was only in the 1970s that articles started to appear about the significance and the devastation of paedophilia on the victims, he said.
Cardinal Pell said he had only discovered in the past few weeks that former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns had destroyed documents relating to sexual abuse allegations.
Bishop Mulkearns was responsible for shifting Ridsdale and several other priests around parishes after concerns were raised by families.
“I can understand why Bishop Mulkearns acted as he did and his actions were followed with disastrous consequences,” Cardinal Pell said.
“I don’t think many people in leadership positions in the Catholic Church knew the horrendous mess we were sitting on. People did not talk about it.”
He agreed moving priests around parishes resulted in more heinous crimes and the suicide of some victims but “I could never describe Mulkearns or Little as aiding this”.
Cardinal Pell said he had never moved known paedophile priests around or covered up offending himself.
Committee member Andrea Coote described the $75,000 maximum payout to victims of sexual abuse by Victorian clergy as a “pittance”.
She asked Cardinal Pell about the $1.1 billion invested in a Victorian Catholic development fund and a “$30 million palace” owned by the Australian Catholic Church in Rome.
Ms Coote said the chairman of the national council of priests Father Eugene McKinnon, a former priest at Terang, had suggested the money spent on the Rome building “could have been put to better use”.
Cardinal Pell: “It is not a palace. It is not my home. I have two nice rooms there which I use as a base when I am there. It is a hostel for pilgrims ... I think that Rome is a red herring. It’s an investment. We don’t need to sell our investments to pay the damages.”