The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is about to recommence its case study on the Catholic Church in Ballarat. Last week, the Melbourne Herald Sun reported: ‘Victims of child sexual abuse look set to be grilled by lawyers for Cardinal George Pell in a bid to quash explosive allegations he was complicit in a widespread cover-up.’
Cardinal Pell will have legal representation separate from the legal team appearing for the Church. He will return from Rome and give evidence at the public hearing next month.
I am one of those Catholic priests who thinks that the church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council has done a good job insisting that the needs of victims be paramount. From the start, the council’s lawyers told the Royal Commission that they would not be cross-examining witnesses, testing their credibility, and doubting their evidence of sexual abuse by church personnel.
Wanting to assist with healing for victims and wanting to learn all available lessons about how to avoid future abuse and cover-ups, the Church has been prepared to place second issues of institutional and personal reputation of church officials. The wellbeing of victims has been put first during the church’s conduct of the commission.
Our critics would say this is too little, too late. They may be right. But as a church we are in the business of repentance, forgiveness and making a fresh start.
We were given a fine example recently by the Anglican Archbishop Philip Aspinall who appeared before the commission admitting past mistakes in the conduct of two Brisbane schools, intelligently wrestling with the complex issues, and always putting justice and healing for the victims first.
Things get difficult now that the commission has Cardinal Pell back in its gaze. His reputation is on the line and the commission has spared no effort in scrutinising his past actions. No one else has been called three times before the commission.
The commission even went to the trouble of conducting a private hearing and then a public hearing with the notorious pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale giving evidence. Ridsdale did not come up to proof, clearly causing considerable upset to Justice McClellan and his counsel assisting Ms Gail Furness SC.
The judge reminded Ridsdale the commission could track down proof of anyone having visited Ridsdale in jail between the private and public hearings. McClellan almost seemed to be suggesting that Ridsdale might have been nobbled. In any event, Ridsdale provided no credible or probative evidence.
A month after Ridsdale’s appearance, McClellan explained his reasons for calling Ridsdale and other notorious pedophiles. He not only wanted to get a sense of why these individuals offend.
But in this case study, he thought such individuals had ‘a capacity to tell us of the relationship between themselves and more senior members of their institutions, including the bishop or archbishop if they come from a religious institution. They can tell us if others knew of their offending conduct and help us to understand how the church responded or failed to respond to that conduct.’
Ridsdale told them nothing in the public hearing.
Pell has appeared before the commission in two previous public hearings — in the case studies on the Ellis Case and on the Melbourne response. Each time, the commission found some conflict of evidence between Pell and another witness. Each time the commission preferred the evidence of the other witness, doubting Pell’s recollection.
In the Ellis matter, Pell had a different recollection from Monsignor Brian Rayner, his Vicar General. Rayner gave evidence that he had kept Pell apprised of the dealings between the diocese and Mr Ellis.
Pell stated, ‘To the best of my recollection, I was not made aware at the time of any of those figures or offers. I was not consulted, as best I recall, about what financial amount should be considered. Nor was I made aware of the other factors which appear to have been significant in the way the facilitation process developed.’
The Commission stated, ‘It seems unlikely that, in light of the legal action being foreshadowed, the Cardinal, as responsible for the finances of the Archdiocese and as the Church Authority responsible for ensuring that victims were dealt with justly, would not have sought or been provided with the offers made as part of the facilitation and the outcome.’
The commission found Rayner to be ‘a truthful witness who did his best to provide an honest account’.
In the Melbourne Response hearing, the commission heard from various witnesses about a key parish meeting which related to abuse in the parish of the Foster family. Cardinal Pell had no recollection of the meeting being ‘unpleasant or rowdy’. Pell’s account basically accorded with the evidence of Archbishop Denis Hart and Ms Helen Last who worked for the archdiocese’s Pastoral Response Office.
The Commission found: ‘Notwithstanding these differing accounts, we accept Mrs Foster’s recollection of the events. Given the circumstances of the public meeting and her personal interest in the reading of the letter, she is less likely to recall the events incorrectly.
‘The impression the meeting left on the senior members of the Church is different, but no doubt both Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Hart have attended multiple meetings and recollections as to the impact of the events on the audience may not be as clear for them as for Mrs Foster.’
So twice, the commission has preferred the recollection of others to that of Pell.
At the Ballarat hearing, two victims, Timothy Green and David Ridsdale (a nephew of Gerald, the serial pedophile), made specific allegations under oath against Pell, allegations which had previously been publicly denied by Pell, and which were denied again by Pell in a media statement on 20 May 2015.
Green told the Royal Commission that when a school boy in the change room at the swimming pool in 1974 he said to Pell: ‘We’ve got to do something about what’s going on at St Pat’s.’ He recalls the conversation going like this: ‘Father Pell said, “Yes, what do you mean?” I said, “Brother Dowlan is touching little boys.” Father Pell said, “Don’t be so ridiculous,” and walked out.’
Pell has no recollection of Green at that time, and he has no recollection of such a conversation.
David Ridsdale gave sworn evidence that he called Pell in 1993 to report that he had been abused in the past by his priest uncle Gerald. Immediately after the phone conversation with Pell, David Ridsdale claims to have called both his sisters and said: ‘The bastard just tried to bribe me.’
He gave the commission this account of the conversation with Pell: ‘Me: “Excuse me, George, what the **** are you talking about?” George said, “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.” My response was, “**** you George, and everything you stand for.” I hung up the phone.’
Pell says: ‘At no time did I attempt to bribe David Ridsdale or his family or offer any financial inducements for him to be silent. At the time of our discussion the police were already aware of allegations against Gerald Ridsdale and were investigating.’
The royal commissioner has indicated that he wants to make findings in relation to these matters and also into Pell’s more generic claims that he knew nothing and could do nothing when a consultor to the bishop in Ballarat and when auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Francis Little in Melbourne. Pell will give sworn evidence. Undoubtedly he will be cross-examined.
After Green had given evidence, Justice McClellan, inviting cross-examination, warned the church lawyers who wanted to follow their usual practice of not cross-examining victims: ‘I should tell you that I would anticipate we’ll be asked to make findings about some of the matters that Mr Green has included in his statement. It’s a matter for you and those instructing you, but I should put you on notice that that’s a real possibility.’ He issued a similar warning after David Ridsdale had given evidence.
For the sake of Pell’s reputation, his lawyers will need to cross examine Green and Ridsdale testing their recollection and the consistency of their accounts, not about the sexual abuse they suffered, but about their recollections of any church cover-up.
The fact that these men were sexually abused as children is uncontested. The issue is whether their claims that Pell knew or tried to effect some form of cover-up are true and accurate recollections.
Given the high degree of scrutiny applied to Pell by the commission and the media, it’s only fair that he have his lawyers cross examine these two victims who claim that he did not want to know that abuse occurred or even worse, that he tried to cover it up. And it is appropriate given that both Green and Ridsdale have indicated they have no objection being recalled to be so examined.
It is imperative now that all parties be seen and heard in public so that we can all make our assessments of recollection and credibility up to 22 and 41 years on.
Once the commission has addressed the reputation and recollection of Messrs Pell, Green and Ridsdale, we should all then get back to seeing what changes can be made to institutions, especially the Catholic Church, so that the risks of child sexual abuse and of cover-up and inadequate response are minimised as much as possible.
Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at Australian Catholic University. This article first appeared in Eureka Street on 23 November 2015.