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Cardinal Pell and the culture of silence

  • 10 March 2016

There was an obvious irony in the timing of Cardinal Pell's evidence to the royal commission last week, coinciding as it did with the awarding of the Oscar for best film to Spotlight, the searing expose of the Boston Church's failure in relation to its own sexual abuse crisis.

The Commission put the spotlight on the Cardinal in relation to what he knew and did not know about the multiple cases of sexual abuse in the Ballarat diocese while he was a young priest working there.

This was not the Cardinal's first evidence to the commission. He has been under considerable scrutiny over the John Ellis case and the Melbourne Response, his own attempt to deal with sexual abuse within the Melbourne Diocese.

The Ellis case in particular was very damaging, with contradictory evidence given by the Cardinal and key figures in his offices about who knew what and when. We are yet to see the findings of the commissioner, Peter McClellan, in relation to that conundrum.

The latest interrogation had a focus on the case of the out-of-control pedophile Gerald Ridsdale. Evidence has been received of person after person who seems to have had some knowledge of Ridsdale's offending: bishops, priests (one of whom went on to become a bishop), religious and laity.

Ridsdale was being regularly moved while then Fr Pell was on the council of consultors for the diocese; Ridsdale had a 14-year-old boy living with him in his presbytery; complaints were coming in from parents about his abusive actions.

In this whirl of rumour and concern, the Cardinal's consistent evidence is that he heard nothing at the time about Ridsdale's activities. While there were failings all around him, particularly from Bishop Mulkearns and other diocesan consultors, he is innocent of wrongdoing because he had no knowledge.

The senior counsel for the commission, Gail Furness, and the commissioner himself, have made it clear it will be the commissioner's task to determine whether this position is credible. Furness has suggested this level of ignorance is 'implausible.' This does not bode well for the final findings in relation to Pell.

Oddly, there is something plausible about the Cardinal's denials. He is adamant that he has no memory of any evidence in relation to Ridsdale. He never raised any question in relation to the multiple moves Ridsdale enjoyed. He admitted to knowing Ridsdale was a 'difficult fellow' but the nature of the difficulty was never clear to him.