Cardinal Pell Takes the Stand in Rome

Cardinal George Pell swears on bible at opening of testimony to Royal Commission, Monday 29 Feb, 2016 during a video link from Rome, Italy at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing. Photo Jeremy Piper (Photo handout from Royal Commission on Child Abuse)

Cardinal George Pell swears on bible at opening of testimony to Royal Commission, Monday 29 Feb, 2016 during a video link from Rome, Italy at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing. Photo Jeremy Piper (Photo handout from Royal Commission on Child Abuse)

Dear Blog Readers,

Last night I had the bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of testimony by Australian Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s Chief of Finance, to the Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse. As over a hundred of us – journalists, survivors, relatives of victims –sat in a hotel in Rome, listening to Pell testify by video-conference to the commission in Sydney, on the other side of the world “Spotlight” the film about a group of journalists in my home town of Boston exposing widespread sexual abuse by priests, was winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

Cameras were not allowed into the conference room at the Hotel Quirinale, so we filmed and interviewed the survivors outside in the pouring rain. Inside the Cardinal sat at a table at the front facing a large TV screen and took questions from the commission’s lead counsel, Gail Furness.

The session started with Pell holding up the bible and swearing to tell “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Shortly into his testimony he set a conciliatory tone for his comments for the evening noting, “I am not here to defend the indefensible. The church in Australia has mucked things up and let people down. The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those.”

T-shirt worn by a survivor of priestly sexual abuse in Australia attending the hearing with testimony by Cardinal Pell in Rome. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

T-shirt worn by a survivor of priestly sexual abuse in Australia attending the hearing with testimony by Cardinal Pell in Rome. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

A little background. Cardinal Pell has already testified before the commission three times. They asked him twice to come back to testify again in two cases, one called Case 28 involved sexual abuse in the town of Ballarat, and the other Case 35 involving sexual abuse in Melbourne.

The 74-year-old Pell provided medical slips from his doctor indicating he was not in good enough health to take the long flight to Australia, so the Commission decided to set up the video-conference in Rome. His decision not to come to Australia raised a lot of hackles down under and Australian comedian/musician Tom Minchin recorded a song called “Come Home Cardinal Pell” the proceeds of which have gone to pay for some of the survivors to come to Rome to hear Pell’s testimony.   The song is funny and hard-hitting and some people at the Vatican have told me they think it was a bit “below the belt.” But the survivors would surely shoot back that the “bellow the belt” behavior or priests towards children was far worse.

If you are interested in hearing the song, here is the you tube link. Tom Minchin song “Come Home Cardinal Pell”

Since Cardinal Pell has been at the Vatican – he was appointed by Pope Francis to be the Vatican Chief of Economy (Prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy) in 2014–I have heard two Italian expressions used about him, playing on the similarity of his last name with the word for hairs (peli) in Italian. I have heard it said that Pell “non ha peli su la lingua”, which literally means that he doesn’t have hairs on his tongue, but is an expression to indicate someone who is brutally frank, never softens his words, and can be verbally harsh. I think that would accurately describe him. I have also heard said Pell “ha peli sullo stomaco”, which translated literally means he has hairs on his stomach. This expression means a person is extremely tough, the stomach is protected with hairs, in contrast I suppose with a soft underbelly, so they can tough it out in any environment. I would also say this is an accurate description of Pell.

Chrissie Foster, mother of two victims of priestly sexual abuse speaking to the Associated Press in Rome. February 28, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Fanuel Morelli

Chrissie Foster, mother of two victims of priestly sexual abuse speaking to the Associated Press in Rome. February 28, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Fanuel Morelli

Earlier in the day, my colleague Francesco Sportelli interviewed Chrissie and Anthony Foster two of whose daughters were raped by a priest named Kevin O’Donnell. Chrissie Foster told us, “We have three daughters the eldest one committed suicide in 2008, in 1999 our middle daughter Katie who was also sexually abused by a priest had been drinking and ran out onto the road and was hit by car. She spent a year in hospital and, it was almost 15 years ago, and she still requires 24h care”

Anthony and Chrissie Foster went to speak to Pell about compensation and as Anthony Foster testified in an early hearing, Pell showed a “sociopathic lack of empathy.”

Last night’s hearing seemed to crawl by with the chief legal counsel leading Pell through a period in the 1970s. Here are some of Pell comments: “There was a predisposition not to believe the child (when there were complaints about abuse before the 1980s.)

Pell added that “the instinct was more to protect the institution and the community of the church from shame.”

I would say a few people in Boston are familiar with this phenomenon.

At another point Pell admitted that before the 1980s people were “rarely encouraged” to report incidences of abuse to police.”

He said that in the 1970s “if the priests denied such acitivity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial.”

David Ridsdale, victim of sexual abuse by his uncle Father Gerald Ridsdale, speaks to reporters during a break in the hearing. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

David Ridsdale, victim of sexual abuse by his uncle Father Gerald Ridsdale, speaks to reporters during a break in the hearing. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Among the survivors present at the hearings was David Ridsdale, nephew of former pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale. Another nephew, also abused by Ridsdale, Domenic Ridsdale was also attending the hearing. Father Ridsdale was moved from parish to parish in Australia for years by then Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. Pell was an adviser to Mulkearns. Ridsdale was eventually convicted of abuse of 54 children.

In 1996 when Pell was bishop, he set up a program called “Melbourne Response” giving victims compensation money. Victims accuse him of using aggressive tactics to give them money to shut them up.

Survivor of sexual abuse, Peter Blenkiron speaks to reporters in break in testimony by Cardinal George Pell to the Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara. February 29, 2016

Survivor of sexual abuse, Peter Blenkiron speaks to reporters in break in testimony by Cardinal George Pell to the Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara. February 29, 2016

Last night survivor Peter Blenkiron explained it briefly to me outside the Hotel Quirinale. “The Melbourne response was a once off, here’s some money, see you later, in the early days you even had to sign a disclosure saying you weren’t allowed to talk about it with anybody.”

David Ridsdale has accused Cardinal Pell of asking him how much he wanted to keep quiet. Pell denies these accusations, although the commission did not get to this period last night.

Last night, speaking about Father Gerald Ridsdale, Cardinal Pell said, “the way he was dealt with was a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the church.”

I think everyone can agree on that.

The hearings will go on for the next two nights—Tuesday and Wednesday, and possibly even Thursday if they do not get through the questioning. Last night, the line of questioning was focused on the 1970s when Cardinal Pell was not in a position of power, the next few nights are sure to tackle the later periods.

10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Alan
    2016/02/29

    . . organised religion with all its weird trappings and rituals has always struck me as abnormal and attracting some pretty weird and abnormal practitioners. Looking forward to more ‘Tales of the Paranormal’!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/03/01

      Thank you Alan for being such a loyal follower and commenter even though I know some of my topics drive you crazy!

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Annie
    2016/02/29

    Thank you dear Trisha as well as your devoted colleagues for pursuing this heartbreaking, devasting story. Did you see the beautiful and heart wrenching performance by Lady Gaga and a brave group of young people performing a song about the abuse….and NO MORE at the academy awards? veRy, very moving. Not a dry eye in the tough Hollywood audience. I’d like to think that performance and that Spotlight winning the best movie will indeed put enormous pressure on the Church to right these horrible wrongs….NOW….at least these people deserve generous compensation….such suffering! I’ve always thought the Vatican should sell off a few hundred of there most treasured and valuable artworks….to show some sense of the their remorse to provide the absolute best possible levels of comfort for ALL the victims and their families with ample lifetime support. nOthing can compensate……but the least they can do is humbly admit the horrors, and give everyone a castle and more than enough for suffering and care. My little brother, suffered his whole short life, and died of mysterious circumstances at the age of 34. He was a “favored ” altar boy. How , oh how do they live with themselves? A pillar of generousity to the church, it practically killed my dad. Only “radical” restitution is acceptable.
    I so appreciate you working on this so hard….and letting us see through your eyes.
    yOu, my friend, are really doing the “true” Gods’ work. bLess you for this and every single one of your always enlightening “underbelly,” and so often great fun reporting. And yes, on a much lighter note, I definitely vote for Paulo to load up the uncut Papal Plane MUrderous Pillow Fight….immediately. iTs important for your loyal subjects to know the truth about what really goes down behind the velvet curtain of the Papal Plane. tHank you, dear Trisha, your devotion to us, your equally devoted readers are so, so grateful to you! Annie

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/03/01

      Annie, what a heartfelt comment. I am so sorry about your brother. I just hate to think about what he might have suffered. I am grateful to you for all your compliments, but do not think I really deserve them. I have not really, properly covered the priestly pedophilia story as perhaps I should have. Thank you for being so kind. It is people like you who inspire me to keep doing this blog.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Miranda
    2016/02/29

    That was really good reporting Trisha. I am so happy that Pell has the world media in his face.
    I only wish Pope Francis would do something to make him more accountable. Bring him back here to Australia . He is a very arrogant person.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/03/01

      As far as I know, Pope Francis has been silent on this one. I think he should say something. I am glad that the commission had to come to Rome, by bringing the hearings physically closer to the Vatican it has made us all more aware, including the Pope, I am sure.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Joan Schmelzle
    2016/03/01

    Thanks for reporting on this, Trisha. Ironic that at the same time “Spotlight” was winning best picture. I was very pleased with that upset of the. Favored film. I am anxious to see it as soon as Netflix gets it to me as I am both a lover of good journalism (especially newspapers) and a Catholic sickened by the awful happenings over so many years. Reporting on it is so necessary.
    A presto,
    Joan

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/03/01

      I also felt it was so ironic that “Spotlight” was winning the Oscar while I was listening to testimony revealing how so much more has happened all over the world despite those reports back in the 90s…it is as though “Spotlight” was only scratching the surface. It was just the beginning.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Jennifer
    2016/03/03

    Its so sad to read about these incidents – I can’t help but feel that alot of people that commit sexual abuse feel no remorse or regret, and the victim is forced to live with the consequences all their lives. Unfortunately it seems sexual abuse has, and probably still is, so covered up by religious organisations.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/03/03

      Hi Jennifer — last night I covered the fourth and last evening of the Pell testimony from 9pm until 3am. It is so heartbreaking to listen to it all. I think the good news in all this is that the more we talk about it the better. The Royal Commission is doing an excellent job of shedding light on what happened so that hopefully it cannot happen again. Listening for hours of testimony with Pell describing how they handled these things in the 70s and 80s maybe me realize that we have made progress. People are much more aware now and willing to listen to children and parental complaints. So in all the sadness, there is a little hope.

      Reply

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