Thursday, February 25, 2016
The cardinal and the royal commission: the questions George Pell must answer
David Marr The Guardian February 25, 2016 Cardinal George Pell is bold. Priests have told the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse over and over again that they knew something was going on back then and now regret doing little more than passing the awful news up the line. They left it to others. That’s not Pell’s position. He says he knew nothing – nothing while he was a priest in Ballarat about the paedophiles around him, and little about these men and their victims in his years as an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne. He was never in the loop. No one warned him. No one complained to him. He didn’t read that letter or this report. It never came up at meetings. There’s nothing in the minutes. There’s nothing in the files. According to the cardinal, he rose through the ranks in a state of nearly perfect ignorance while – as he now acknowledges with remorse – systematic cover-ups allowed paedophile priests to prey on innocent children. “I certainly was unaware of it,” he told the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations in 2013. “I have sometimes said that if we had been gossips, which we were not, and we had talked to one another about the problems that were there, we would have realised earlier just how widespread this awful business was.” But priests do gossip. Ask them. They especially gossip about each other and always have. When a priest suddenly leaves his parish, the phones run hot. Priests say that was as true in the 1970s as it is now. Presbyteries have to know what problems are coming down the pike. Australia’s most senior Catholic, the man in charge of the Vatican’s economy, is prepared to face many difficult questions next week as he sits in a conference room of the Albergo Quirinale. Witnesses against him have already been cross-examined. Mountains of documents have been combed. In Allan Myers QC he has about the best defence barrister the nation can offer. He will not be quizzed about current investigations by Victoria police. They lie outside the ambit of the royal commission. Questioning will concentrate on his response to the child abuse crisis in the early years of his career: as a priest in Ballarat and auxiliary bishop in Melbourne. He will not be a pushover. Though not a nimble thinker, Pell is no slouch in the witness box. He will be prepared to deal with complex and contested evidence put to him by lawyers for both the commission and survivors of abuse. Onlookers may find the minutiae bewildering. But behind them all lies one big question. We’ll wait and see if he has an answer. But at this point, the evidence before the commission being what it is, the question seems unanswerable: how could he not have known? Warnings in Ballarat Pell was marked for big things. After studies in Rome and Oxford, he returned to Ballarat as a parish priest and after only a couple of years was appointed episcopal vicar for education in 1973. Horrific abuse was occurring in both the St Alipius primary school (almost next door to Pell’s presbytery) and in St Patrick’s College where a 14-year-old boy known to the royal commission as BWF and his younger brother known as BWG were both abused by Brother Edward Dowlan. BWF told the commission that in 1973, terrified for his brother and unable to get the attention of the school’s headmaster, he set off one afternoon in his school uniform to find Pell. “He was well regarded as someone of a high stature in the church by the kids and by myself,” BWF told the commission. “We would often see him in the school grounds.” He says Pell rebuffed him at the door of the presbytery on Stewart Street. “I just blurted out to Pell that Dowlan had beat and molested [BWG] and demanded to know what Pell was going to do about it. Pell became angry and yelled at me, ‘Young man, how dare you knock on this door and make demands’. We argued for a bit and he finally told me to go away and shut the door on me.” BWF is unshaken in his recollection of the incident. But Pell never lived in that presbytery. BWF told the royal commission: “I didn’t know whether he lived there or not; for me, it was just a good place to start. “ Pell denies the conversation took place. The following year at the Eureka Stockade pool, 13-year-old Tim Green saw the imposing figure of Father Pell in the changing room. Green was another of Dowlan’s victims and he heard himself say something like this to the priest: “We’ve got to do something about what’s going on at St Pat’s.” Green remembers Pell asking what he meant and replying, “Brother Dowlan is touching little boys.” He recalls Pell leaving the changing room with the words, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Green was also unshaken in his recollection under cross examination. Pell says of that changing shed warning: “To the best of my belief this did not happen.” Dowlan was moved around Christian Brothers schools for nearly 20 years before he faced 64 charges of abusing boys – including four at St Patrick’s. He has been in and out of prison ever since. Moving Ridsdale By 1977, Pell was a member of the College of Consultors of the Ballarat Diocese, a group of senior priests who advised Bishop Ronald Mulkearns on the appointment of priests to parishes. Mulkearns was old school. He simply moved paedophile priests from parish to parish as their abuse was discovered. He has since been condemned for this by his episcopal successors, Victoria police, lawyers, the Victorian parliamentary enquiry and victims’ advocates. The worst of these Ballarat priests was Father Gerald Ridsdale who began raping children almost from the moment he left the seminary. Postings to Warrnambool, Apollo Bay and Inglewood had all ended badly after he was caught abusing children. The Sunday Age later reported Ridsdale’s crimes in Inglewood were no secret: “It was pretty common knowledge all through the Catholic congregation, everyone you would speak to knew about it.” Eventually, Ridsdale would be convicted of abusing nine children in his brief time at Inglewood. Pell sat on the College of Consultors meeting in July 1977 that sent Ridsdale to his next parish, Edenhope. That didn’t work out so well either. Eventually, Ridsdale would be convicted of abusing 13 children at Edenhope. Pell was at the consultors’ meeting in September 1979 that discussed Ridsdale’s resignation from Edenhope and the meeting in January 1980 that approved sending the priest to the National Pastoral Institute in Elsternwick. Gail Furness SC, counsel assisting the royal commission, had this exchange about the transfer with Father Bill Melican, another of the priests present at that meeting: Q. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, from what we do know, that that was to get him out of parish work? A. Yes. Q. Essentially, to keep him away from children? A. Yes. Q. And that was known to the consultors at that time? A. Yes. Pell was an apology the day the consultors met to send Ridsdale to Mortlake in 1981 where for most of his brief stay he lived openly with a young boy in the presbytery. Other children were abused. Complaints poured in to Mulkearns from parents, the local doctor and the nun who ran the parish school. Mortlake convinced Mulkearns it was time to shift Ridsdale out of the diocese and out of Victoria. Pell was one of the consultors at a meeting in September 1982 when the bishop announced Ridsdale would take a desk job in the Catholic Enquiry Centre in Sydney. Even there Ridsdale kept offending. Pell claims that in all his time in Ballarat he never learnt Ridsdale was a paedophile. At a remarkable press conference in Sydney in 2002 he claimed not to have been aware of Ridsdale’s crimes until shortly before the priest pleaded guilty to the first of 30 charges of child abuse in Melbourne in 1993. Pell has never been cross-examined on this claim. Last year he said he could not recollect Mulkearns raising any paedophilia allegations against Ridsdale at, before or after the meetings of the College of Consultors over all those years. He added: “I never moved Ridsdale out of Mortlake parish. I never moved him anywhere. I would never have condoned or participated in a decision to transfer Ridsdale in the knowledge that he had abused children, and I did not do so. I was a member of the College of Consultors for Ballarat from 1977 until I left Ballarat in 1984. Membership of the consultors gave me no authority over Gerald Ridsdale or any other priest in Ballarat.” The curia In 1987 Pell became an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne serving under Archbishop Frank Little. In the territory of Pell’s responsibilities – from Mornington peninsula up to the Dandenongs – were three parishes run by paedophiles the subject of complaints to the church going back many, many years. Father Peter Searson in Doveton was violent, packed a gun and terrified children. Father Kevin O’Donnell in Oakleigh was a ceaseless paedophile. Police would later call him a “two-a-day man”. Father Ronald Pickering in Gardenvale left a trail of wrecked kids across Melbourne until he did a flit to England one night in 1993. How much Pell admits knowing about these priests is not clear. Certainly, he had none of them removed. He told the Victorian parliamentary enquiry: “When I was auxiliary bishop of Melbourne I was not a part of the system or procedures for dealing with paedophilia.” Next week he is bound to face questioning about that. What was the true scope of his responsibilities in these years? He did not have the power to hire and fire but Catholic observers are surprised Pell would declare dealing with paedophile priests in his parishes was outside the remit of an auxiliary bishop. Pell claims Archbishop Little kept his auxiliaries in the dark. The junior bishops sat with Little and his Vicar General on the curia of the archdiocese, in effect its board of governors. But Pell says Little kept from them details of his dealings with offenders like O’Donnell in Oakleigh. “Archbishop Little never spoke to nobody about this,” Pell told the Victorian parliamentary inquiry. “At the meetings – what we used to call the curia of the assistant bishops – he never once raised the issue, and he never raised the issue with me personally.” But Bishop Peter Connors, another of the auxiliary bishops in Pell’s time, has given evidence to the royal commission that “cases in my region of a sexual nature, either with the boundary violation or with molestation of a child … would have been raised at the meeting of curia.” He is backed by Bishop Hilton Deakin, another auxiliary bishop on curia in these years. Deakin has given evidence that the curia and other church committees on which Pell sat examined, among other cases, that of Searson whom he described as “the most despicable man I’ve ever met in my life”. Doveton This raw housing commission parish had seen a number of bad priests but Searson was the worst. The church had been dealing with complaints about the man for 30 years. He was clearly and profoundly disturbed, erratic and violent. He stole parish funds. He hit altar boys and hung round their toilet block at the little parish school. Children fled his presbytery screaming. Pell told the Victorian parliamentary inquiry: “This is one case where we consistently tried to do everything right.” The headmaster of the school begged for Searson to be removed. The church removed the headmaster. A delegation of teachers came to Pell in 1989 begging him to remove Searson. Nothing happened. The priest’s behaviour grew more extreme. A little girl claimed he sat her on his knee for confession and she felt his erection pressed against her. Her parents didn’t go to the police. Pell claims the church was “unable to pin anything on the man”. This was despite investigations by the police, the Catholic Education Office and lawyers hired by the church – though the lawyers weren’t asked to dig out the facts but “evaluate what was done and whether it was done properly.” A second delegation came to Pell in 1991 to warn him, in the words of one of the teachers “of the danger to children”. But Pell remembers them merely complaining “in general terms” that the priest was “extremely difficult to deal with and disliked by parents, staff and children”. But he took the matter to the curia and Little directed him to have a talk to the priest. “It was,” Pell reports, “a most unpleasant conversation.” And that was that – despite evidence to the royal commission by Deakin of highly detailed written accounts of Searson’s appalling behaviour reaching the church at this time. Pell did not fire the priest on becoming archbishop. Indeed, he jumped to his defence one night at the troubled parish of Oakleigh, the scene of O’Donnell’s depredations. When parishioners raised Searson’s name, the new archbishop snapped: “It’s all gossip and I don’t listen to gossip.” About this time Searson bashed an altar boy for giggling during Mass. His parents went to the police. A second boy corroborated the evidence of the first and Searson was charged with assault. In March 1997 the priest was finally suspended from his duties in Doveton. Pell made the point to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry: “He has never been convicted of a sex crime. He was convicted for an act of cruelty.” David Ridsdale Among Father Gerald Ridsdale’s victims was his nephew David. Unaware the police were already closing in on the priest, David Ridsdale rang Pell in February 1993. Their families were friends from Ballarat. He thought the auxiliary bishop might be able to do something tactful and effective to stop his uncle. Pell knew the priest was about to be charged. The church was going all out in his defence. He would have the church’s solicitors at his disposal and a shrewd, senior criminal barrister. Pell would walk him to court. No Melbourne priest accused of paedophile abuse before or since would have such backing. David Ridsdale has never wavered in his account of his conversation with Pell. He says, the auxiliary bishop asked: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.” Ridsdale says he replied: “Fuck you and fuck everything you stand for.” He immediately told his sisters, “The bastard tried to offer me a bribe.” And then rang the police. Gerald Ridsdale was charged the following day with the first of what would be hundreds of charges involving up to 78 victims. At this rate he will die in prison. More ink has been spilled on this telephone conversation than perhaps any other incident in Pell’s career. Pell has repeatedly denied he offered young Ridsdale a bribe and repeatedly asserted his caller mistook his pastoral intentions. Last year, Pell broke with the church’s legal team in order to cross-examine a handful of the witnesses against him. Chief among these was David Ridsdale. But he was unshaken by the questioning of barrister Sam Duggan. “I want to suggest that this conversation that you have recorded here never happened,” Duggan said. “No, utterly,” replied Ridsdale. “That is as clear to me as the first time my uncle forced me onto his penis. These are things that stick. They changed my life.” Troublesome priests Pell became archbishop of Melbourne in July 1996 and set about addressing the scandals of abuse in his archdiocese by establishing a church commission he called the Melbourne Response. He and his supporters advance this as proof that Pell was championing the cause of victims. Perhaps, but the then premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, had threatened him with a royal commission by if he didn’t put the church’s house in order. His response offered investigation and counselling but – unlike the response soon implemented by the Catholic church in the rest of Australia – set low, capped limits on payouts to victims. It would save his archdiocese many millions of dollars. The royal commission has already quizzed Pell about the Melbourne Response. Next week he may be quizzed about other aspects of his conduct as archbishop of Melbourne, particularly his failure to dismiss – or break ties with – a number of questionable priests. There was Searson who took months to fire, and Father Barry Robinson who had fled Boston rather than prove – as he claimed – that the boy he was having sex with was over the age of consent. Pell gave him a Melbourne parish where he served – apparently blamelessly – until the Boston Globe broke his story in 2004. And then there was Ronald Pickering. Everyone knew Pickering drank and had a vile temper, but he put on a fine mass with lots of bells, smells, Latin and children’s choirs. The choir and the altar were his hunting ground. Genevieve Grant, a young teacher at St James Primary School, says she tried to warn Pell about Pickering in 1989. He says: “No teacher spoke to me alleging sexual improprieties by Father Pickering on students.” Four years later Pickering disappeared one night from his parish after, according to the Age, “a senior person in Victoria’s Catholic hierarchy” tipped him off that one of his victims was about to sue. Pickering hid in England. The Melbourne archdiocese seems never to have investigated allegations that came to light about Pickering. The Catholic Insurance Office could never get hold of him. Every month, Pell paid the fugitive the modest stipend of a retired priest. “I was obliged in canon law to do that,” he told the Victorian parliamentary inquiry. “And I did that.” But his successor Archbishop Denis Hart took a different view. He immediately stopped the payments. Pickering died in England in 2009. Pell returns to the box It will be late night in Rome when Pell gives his evidence next week. This was his choice. He will be on the far side of the world but sitting with a contingent of survivors in a four-star hotel outside the Vatican walls. This is the royal commission’s last chance to make sense of the confused and often contested accounts of Pell’s handling of the paedophile crisis in his church. And Pell knows that however much his word may count within his church, the commission has already shown a degree of scepticism about this testimony. And if Pell expresses, as he is bound to express, his profound regret at the inaction of the hierarchy in Australia during his long career that saw him rise to one of the highest offices in his church, the commission might ask him a simple question: if you wanted to protect children and those around you would not act, why didn’t you call the police?