ROME/SYDNEY Australian Cardinal George Pell said on Sunday the Catholic Church had made “enormous mistakes” as he became the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify on sexual abuse of children in the Church.
Pell, 74, held up a Bible as he was sworn in to answer questions by Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse in front of victims in a Rome hotel room.
Around 15 abuse victims and support staff traveled to Rome on the back of a crowd-funding campaign to see the Vatican’s treasurer give evidence after he said he was unable to travel to his native Australia because of heart problems.
While strictly speaking an Australian affair concerning events decades ago, the hearing has taken on wider implications about accountability of Church leaders because of Pell’s high position in the Vatican, where he serves as finance minister.
“The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those but the Church in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has let people down,” Pell said as he began answering questions via video link to the commission in Sydney. “I’m not here to defend the indefensible.”
Pell has become the focal point for victims’ frustration over what they say has been an inadequate response from the Catholic Church to the abuse claims. Pell himself is not accused of sexual abuse.
There were scuffles between security guards and journalists when Pell arrived at the Rome hotel a few hours before the hearing began at 10 p.m. Italian time on Sunday, which is 8 a.m. Sydney time on Monday.
“We need the Vatican to stand up and take responsibility rather than hide behind legal processes and please help us heal the future,” David Ridsdale, one of the abuse victims, told reporters as he entered the hotel.
“We don’t want any more survivors. We need to be the last of the survivors. That’s our message.”
In Sydney, victims’ supporters gathered outside the hearing rooms, holding hands in prayer and carrying signs saying “Pope Sack Pell Now” and “Pell go to hell”.
CARDINAL DENIES WRONGDOING
Last year, Pell denied accusations made at Commission hearings in Australia that he had tried to bribe a victim to remain quiet, that he ignored another complaint and that he was complicit in the transfer of a pedophile priest in Ballarat, Australia. The alleged events took place in the 1970s and 1980s when he was a priest.
Pell and his supporters say he has done no wrong and that he has become a lightning rod for all cases of abuse.
Last year, Australia’s bishops rallied behind Pell, calling him in a joint statement “a man of integrity who is committed to the truth”.
On Sunday Pell’s office released a photo of the cardinal tying a yellow ribbon around a fence in the Vatican Gardens, joining a campaign started by the Australian Loud Fence victim support group.
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar scandals have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.
Pell has blamed a former culture of silence in the Church for the cover-up of child abuse by clergy, making it difficult to know the full extent of crimes. He has twice apologized for its slow response.
Ironically, the Rome hearing starts just hours before the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood, where “Spotlight”, a film about the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse in the Church in Boston, has been nominated for six Academy Awards.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence and Gareth Jones)