George Pell 'surprised' by royal commission finding he was told of Ridsdale abuse


Key points:

  • The royal commission's final reports were redacted in 2017, but have now been released in full
  • The commission found Cardinal Pell was told of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale's offending in 1982
  • Cardinal Pell said consistent evidence from those in the meetings was that they were not told

Cardinal George Pell has accused the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of making findings "not supported by evidence" in its unredacted report, which found that he was explicitly told in 1982 of the reason paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale was being moved between parishes.

In its unredacted reports tabled in Federal Parliament this morning, the commission found by 1973, Cardinal Pell was aware of child abuse being committed by clergy and had considered measures to avoid situations that "might provoke gossip about it".

But the royal commission rejected several other claims which were levelled at Cardinal Pell during its hearings, including that he offered a bribe to an abuse survivor to silence them.

In its report on the Ballarat diocese, the commission said it was satisfied that Cardinal Pell — then an assistant priest at Ballarat East — had considered the "prudence" of Gerald Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps.

Ridsdale would later admit to abusing hundreds of children.

An elderly man in glasses sits in front of a blank wall.
Gerald Ridsdale gave his evidence to the royal commission over videolink from prison.(Supplied: Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses To Child Sexual Abuse)

"The most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child then they could sexually abuse a child or at least provoke gossip about such a prospect," the commission said.

"We are also satisfied that by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it."

Read Cardinal Pell's full statement

Commission finds Cardinal Pell knew why Ridsdale was moved

In response to Ridsdale's offending against children, then-Bishop Ronald Mulkearns moved Ridsdale across several parishes, a handling that Cardinal Pell himself told the commission was "a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the Church".

In his evidence, Cardinal Pell said he was not told the reason for Ridsdale being moved across parishes and did not learn of abuse allegations against Ridsdale until years later, in 1993.

He told the commission it was a "sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me", words he later apologised for.

But the royal commission found that in a 1982 meeting, Cardinal Pell — who was at the time an adviser to then-Bishop Mulkearns — was explicitly told Ridsdale's "sexual transgressions" were the reason he was being moved from the parish at Mortlake in Victoria's south-west.

"We are satisfied Bishop Mulkearns gave reasons for it being necessary to move Ridsdale," the commission said.

A head and shoulders shot of Bishop Ronald Mulkearns.
Ronald Mulkearns was heavily criticised for his role in moving Ridsdale between parishes.(ABC News)

"We are satisfied that he referred to homosexuality at the meeting in the context of giving reasons for Ridsdale's move.

"However, we are not satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns left the explanation there.

"As Cardinal Pell said, there would have been a discussion.

"Cardinal Pell gave evidence that the bishop did not give the true reason for moving Ridsdale — namely, his sexual activity with children — and that the bishop lied in not giving the true reason to the consultors.

"We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the Diocese and from parish work because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. A contrary position is not tenable."

Cardinal Pell says commission's conclusions 'not supported by evidence'

In a statement released this afternoon, a spokesperson for Cardinal Pell said he was "surprised" by the commission's findings.

"These views are not supported by evidence," the statement said.

"He [Cardinal Pell] is especially surprised by the statements in the report about the earlier transfers of Gerald Ridsdale discussed by the Ballarat Diocesan Consultors in 1977 and 82.

"The Consultors who gave evidence on the meetings in 1977 and 1982 either said they did not learn of Ridsdale's offending against children until much later or they had no recollection of what was discussed.

"None said they were made aware of Ridsdale's offending at these meetings.

"The then Fr Pell left the Diocese of Ballarat and therefore his position as a consultor at the end of 1984."

Missed opportunity to advocate for priest's removal

The commission also found Cardinal Pell had the opportunity to take action as an auxiliary bishop and then Archbishop of Melbourne against two separate paedophile priests.

In the first, the commission found then-Bishop Pell should have advocated for Father Peter Searson to be removed in 1989.

Father Searson died in 2009 without facing charges, but the commission heard he abused children in parishes and schools across three districts over more than a decade.

Cardinal Pell told the inquiry he was handed a list of grievances and allegations about Father Searson in 1989, but believed the Catholic Education Office and the then-Archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Little, were handling the allegations levelled against the priest, and did not think it was his place to investigate them.

He told the commission he was kept in the dark by senior officials within the education office, in a "world of crimes and cover-ups".

Father Peter Searson in 1992 sitting in a chair at the front of a class photo.
Father Peter Searson died before any charges were laid against him for alleged sexual abuse of children spanning more than a decade.(Supplied)

However the commission found given his position, Cardinal Pell should have taken action.

"It was incumbent on Bishop Pell, as an Auxiliary Bishop with responsibilities for the welfare of the children in the Catholic community of his region, to take such action as he could to advocate that Father Searson be removed or suspended or, at least, that a thorough investigation be undertaken of the allegations," the commission said.

"Cardinal Pell's evidence was that he could not recall recommending a particular course of action to the Archbishop. He conceded that, in retrospect, he might have been 'a bit more pushy' with all of the parties involved.

"We do not accept any qualification that this conclusion is only appreciable in retrospect.

The commission found that a group of teachers from the local parish school who met with then-Bishop Pell in 1989 may not have advocated for Father Searson's removal, but Cardinal Pell should have exercised his independent judgement on the matter.

In his statement this afternoon, Cardinal Pell outlined a timeline highlighting his role in removing Father Searson from the parish within a year of becoming Archbishop of Melbourne.

"As an Auxiliary Bishop in Melbourne 1987-96, bishop Pell met with a delegation from Doveton Parish in 1989 which did not mention sexual assaults and did not ask for Searson's removal," he said.

"Appointed Archbishop of Melbourne on 16 August 1996, Archbishop Pell placed Fr Searson on administrative leave in March 1997 and removed him from the parish on 15 May 1997."

At the time, Father Searson was appointed to the Doveton parish in Melbourne's south-east, in what the commission termed an "appalling" failure of leadership by then-Archbishop Little, who was already aware of complaints against the priest.

"The way in which Father Searson's conduct was handled within the Archdiocese indicates a failure of the system in place to properly respond to complaints, including taking responsible action about those complaints," the commission concluded.

"It was a failure of management and a failure by the individual Church personnel to press that action be taken.

"In the particular instances listed above, those individuals identified (Monsignor Connors, Monsignor Deakin, Monsignor Cudmore and Bishop Pell) should have advised Archbishop Little to act," the commission said.

"Instead, they accepted the inaction of the Archbishop. We consider that this constitutes a series of individual failures by those priests to advise, urge or influence the Archbishop to take action."

Second priest not stood down until months after report of 'incident'

The commission also found that when Cardinal Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, he was told priest Wilfred Baker was likely to be charged by police over "an incident in Brighton in 1965".

"We are satisfied that the Curia knew in August 1996 that Father Baker would probably be charged in relation to an incident at Brighton in 1965. We are satisfied that Archbishop Pell  [was] at the meeting where this was discussed," the commission said.

A blue copy of the royal commission's report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne sits in front of a torn envelope.
The royal commission's unredacted reports relating to Cardinal Pell were tabled in Federal Parliament this morning.(ABC News: Matt Roberts)

The commission did not produce a finding on whether the Curia (an advisory body within the diocese) knew in 1996 that the "incident" involved child sexual abuse.

"Archbishop Pell had the authority to remove Father Baker," the commission said.

"Despite that knowledge, Archbishop Pell did not stand down Father Baker at that point in time.

"Father Baker remained in his position at North Richmond — a parish with a primary school attached to it — until May 1997."

In May 1997, a lawyer wrote to Father Baker telling him he had received information and complaints that Father Baker had sexually abused three people in 1963, 1964-1965 and 1992.

The next day, then-Archbishop Pell placed him on leave.

Father Baker was charged with multiple child sex offences in July 1998.

Former Archbishop Denis Hart told the royal commission in his evidence that after Baker's conviction, many other victims came forward and received compensation.

Commission rejects claim Cardinal Pell attempted to bribe abuse survivor

The commission found a claim by David Ridsdale, the nephew of Gerald Ridsdale, that he was offered a bribe by Cardinal Pell in 1993 was unlikely.

Mr Ridsdale told the commission he called then-Bishop Pell about the abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of his uncle.

He said he was seeking a "private process" to resolve the matter due to concerns about his grandmother.

Mr Ridsdale told the commission during the phone conversation, Cardinal Pell told him: "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet."

Cardinal Pell denied the claim in his royal commission evidence and the commission said it was not satisfied that Cardinal Pell said the words attributed to him.

"There is no compelling reason for the then bishop to make such a statement.

"Knowledge about Ridsdale's offending was widespread in the community, as we have set out earlier in this report.

"Finally, Mr Ridsdale's interpretation of the discussion is not consistent with him seeking a private process."

Cardinal Pell told boy reporting Ballarat abuse 'don't be ridiculous', commission finds

The royal commission was also satisfied that by the early 1970s, Cardinal Pell had been told by some students and other priests about Christian Brother Ted Dowlan's offending and that he did not tell then-Bishop Mulkearns.

"Cardinal Pell told us that, with hindsight, he should have done more," the commission report said.

The commission also found that Timothy Green — a student at St Patrick's College in Ballarat — approached Cardinal Pell at a swimming pool and told him: "We've got to do something about what's going on at St Pat's."

The commission accepted that after Mr Green told Cardinal Pell that Father Dowlan was touching boys, Cardinal Pell said words to the effect of "don't be ridiculous" and walked away.

Ted Bales
Christian Brother Ted Dowlan abused students at St Patrick's College in Ballarat.

In a statement released after the unredacted report was tabled, Mr Green's lawyer, Vivian Waller, said her client was relieved his testimony given five years ago had finally been published.

Dr Waller said Mr Green, who was abused by Dowlan, had repeatedly told her he felt "regret and guilt" that he did not do more to bring child sexual abuse at the school to light.

"Responsibility for the proper investigation of child abuse did not rest upon his young shoulders," she said.

"His report to Pell was a remarkably courageous act for a 12 or 13-year-old boy terribly worried that his own abuse would come to light.

"The failure was not his, but that of Catholic priests and brothers who knew and failed to report suspected child abuse to the police."

Allegation Cardinal Pell shouted at boy likely mistaken identity, commission finds

The commission said it was not satisfied of the truth of an allegation that Cardinal Pell shouted at a boy who was trying to report abuse by Father Dowlan in late 1973 or 1974.

Witness BWF, who was a student at Ballarat's St Patrick's College at the time, gave evidence that he was told to go away when he demanded then-Father Pell do something about a boy who had been beaten and molested.

Hundreds of colourful ribbons tied to a fence outside a church
People tied ribbons to the gates of St Patrick's Cathedral in Ballarat during the royal commission hearings, as a gesture of support to abuse survivors.(ABC Ballarat: Dominic Cansdale)

"Young man, how dare you knock on this door and make demands," BWF quoted then-Father Pell as saying.

"We argued for a bit and he finally told me to go away and shut the door on me," BWF said in his evidence.

In his testimony, Cardinal Pell denied the event took place, calling it "false evidence".

While the commission accepted that the 12-year-old boy did speak to someone at the St Patrick's presbytery in Ballarat, they could not be satisfied it was Father Pell.

"While we accept that BWF genuinely believes he spoke to Cardinal Pell, we are not satisfied he did so. We do not know the identity of the priest he did speak to," the commission said.

Claim Cardinal Pell openly discussed Ridsdale's abuse 'unlikely' to have occurred

The commission also found it was unlikely that Cardinal Pell was overheard telling another priest "I think Gerry's been rooting boys again" in 1983.

That claim was made by witness BWE, a former altar boy at St Patrick's Cathedral in Ballarat, who said after a funeral he overheard then-Father Pell make the comment while in conversation with another priest.

In his evidence to the commission, Cardinal Pell strongly denied the allegation and said every detail was "manifestly false".

"The evidence leads us to conclude that the event as described by BWE is unlikely to have occurred," the commission said.

"It is likely that he overheard the conversation; however, that conversation was not between the priests he nominated and was not in the context of that particular funeral."

The commission's findings concerning the Melbourne and Ballarat dioceses were heavily redacted in its final 2017 report in order to avoid prejudicing the trial of Cardinal Pell, who had been charged with child sexual abuse.

But his unanimous High Court acquittal in April, cleared the way for the release of the unredacted findings.

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