Royal commission findings about Cardinal George Pell could be made public. Here's what we know


For years, questions have been asked about what Cardinal George Pell might have known about clerical abuse during his long career within the Catholic Church.

Giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney in 2014, and again via video link from Rome in 2016, Cardinal Pell was questioned at length about his knowledge of paedophile priests in both Ballarat and Melbourne.

The Cardinal was taken painstakingly through evidence and asked to cast his mind back to the 1970s and what he knew about paedophile priests including Gerald Ridsdale, who later admitted to abusing hundreds of children.

By the end of the exhaustive inquiry in 2017, the counsel assisting the royal commission submitted Cardinal Pell did come to know of abuse carried out by one notorious paedophile priest and had missed an opportunity to deal with another priest also suspected of molestation.

But the commissioners' ultimate findings into what Pell may — or may not have — known has never been made public.

By the time the final report was published in December 2017, the Cardinal himself was facing child sexual abuse charges.

The findings into what were called case studies 28 (Ballarat) and 35 (Melbourne) were heavily redacted so as not to prejudice Cardinal Pell's case.

Now that Cardinal Pell's child abuse convictions have been overturned by the High Court, Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter has said he is seeking final advice from his department on publicly releasing that report in full — making public pages and pages of findings that until now have been blacked out.

It will reveal what the commission made of the evidence put before it about whether Cardinal Pell could or should have done more to prevent children from being abused by priests Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson and Christian Brother Ted Dowlan.

Cardinal Pell says he never knew why notorious paedophile priest was moved

Cardinal Pell rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church after being ordained in the regional Victorian city of Ballarat — a place that became synonymous with Australia's clerical abuse scandal.

Between 1980 and 2015, 140 people made claims of child sexual abuse against priests and religious figures operating within the diocese of Ballarat.

Cardinal Pell was questioned relentlessly before the royal commission about the sins of his religious brethren.

Giving his evidence via video-link from Rome, Australia's most senior Catholic denied any knowledge of the abuse carried out by the country's worst paedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale, despite having shared the parish house with him at St Alipius Church in 1973.

Cardinal Pell was a priest in Ballarat between 1973 and 1984 and part of a group of advisers to then-bishop Ronald Mulkearns.

During that period, Ridsdale was moved several times between parishes by Bishop Mulkearns, but Cardinal Pell maintained he was never told the real reason why he was moved.

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

He said while some people knew there had been complaints about Ridsdale in the 1970s, he didn't know about the abuse allegations until years later, in 1993.

Cardinal Pell said it was "a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me", words he later apologised for.

He condemned the former bishop's handling of Ridsdale's case as "a catastrophe for the victims, and a catastrophe for the church".

But counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness SC, submitted that by 1982, then-Father Pell, along with other consultors, would have known Ridsdale had been sexually abusing children for several years.

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

Cardinal Pell's lawyers rejected that argument, submitting there was not "a single witness, nor a single document" that indicated he knew of Ridsdale's crimes.

The commission's lawyers agreed there was insufficient evidence to substantiate a separate allegation put before the inquiry, that Cardinal Pell had tried to bribe David Ridsdale, who was both Gerald Ridsdale's nephew and his victim.

Cardinal Pell missed opportunity to act on Peter Searson, commission told

The commissioners were also urged to find that there was enough evidence for Cardinal Pell to have concluded serious action needed to be taken against paedophile priest Peter Searson 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 Bishop Mulkearns were handling the allegations levelled against the priest, and didn't 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.
Peter Searson died before any charges were laid against him for alleged sexual abuse of children spanning more than a decade.(Supplied)

Yet Ms Furness submitted Cardinal Pell, who was an auxiliary bishop in the Melbourne diocese at the time, should have pushed for Father Searson to be removed or suspended while an investigation took place.

Taking account of the Cardinal's evidence, Ms Furness urged the commissioners to find Cardinal Pell missed an opportunity to "recognise and deal with the serious risks posed by Searson".

Cardinal Pell expressed 'regret' he did not do more to stop Ted Dowlan

Cardinal Pell admitted to the inquiry that he knew about allegations against Christian Brother Ted Dowlan.

In 1974, Dowlan was removed from his teaching post at Ballarat's St Patrick's College after he admitted abusing boys under his care.

The royal commission heard that Cardinal Pell, who at that time was an episcopal vicar and the bishop's representative for education in the diocese, had received information from a student at the college that Dowlan had been "misbehaving with boys".

Cardinal Pell said he had inquired with the school chaplain about the complaint but did not take it further.

Dowlan went on to abuse children at at least another four schools over another 14 years.

He later did two stints in jail for the abuse of 31 boys during the 1970s and 80s.

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

Cardinal Pell said he knew a paedophile teacher was moved to a new school because of abuse allegations, but the rumours were vague and unspecific.

He said he did not tell church authorities or the police because he assumed Dowlan would get "help" to stop him molesting boys.

But he conceded he should have done more.

"I regret that I didn't do more at that stage," Cardinal Pell told the commission.

The commissioners were not required to accept the submissions made to them.

What they concluded will be revealed in coming weeks.

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