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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.