Archbishop George Pell urged to clarify handling of Victorian abuse cases
25th August 2012
Updated 27th August 2012
THE nation's most powerful Catholic, Sydney archbishop George Pell, is embroiled in a damaging controversy over the handling of church-related child sex assaults in Victoria, with demands that he appear before a new inquiry to explain what he knew and when about some of the worst abuses committed anywhere in the world.
Under the powers afforded the state parliamentary inquiry, Cardinal Pell and other senior members of the church can be compelled to appear before the committee as it is set to investigate the systematic abuse of probably hundreds of children in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat, where Cardinal Pell began his career.
The Weekend Australian can reveal that the inquiry is poised to undertake regional sittings, with victims from Ballarat preparing submissions and inquiry members describing as inevitable that the committee will sit in the regional city, 110km west of Melbourne.
A senior state Labor MP, Ann Barker, who has studied the church's Irish response, told The Weekend Australian that Cardinal Pell should appear before the inquiry in his role overseeing the church's initial response to Catholic abuse in Melbourne but that incumbent Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart also should give evidence.
"Why wouldn't they?" Ms Barker said. "Treat it like a boil, lance it and get rid of it."
A church spokesman said Archbishop Hart expected and planned to appear before the inquiry and remained supportive of the process.
Cardinal Pell's connection to the issue is twofold: first as the archbishop of Melbourne who dealt with the church's initial response to the scandal, dubbed the Melbourne Response; and second as a younger priest who worked and lived in the same district as some of the worst offenders.
When former priest Gerard Ridsdale made his first court appearance in 1993, Cardinal Pell stood by his side, although he has steadfastly denied knowledge of his activities. Ridsdale, one of the world's worst pedophiles, has served nearly 20 years in jail.
Cardinal Pell later lamented his decision to support Ridsdale that day.
The Ballarat diocese was so riddled with pedophilia 30 and 40 years ago that attending school and mass became a form of Russian roulette for the largely young male victims.
Ms Barker added: "If they are serious about saying this is an issue that needs to be addressed . . . then appear before the committee, tell them what they know and answer the questions that are put to them."
The inquiry is not limited to the Catholic Church and will include other faiths and occupations.
Stephen Woods, a victims' spokesman, said the issue was broader than the obvious injustice; he believed Cardinal Pell's Melbourne Response to the issue was deeply flawed.
Asked whether Cardinal Pell should appear, he said: "Of course. Pell wants to call in lawyers at any drop of the hat."
Cardinal Pell's office did not respond to The Weekend Australian although this week he released a 4000-word statement publicly distancing himself from responsibility for the church's handling of sexual-abuse investigations.
Father Kevin Dillon, of St Mary of the Angels in Geelong, has dealt with up to 30 victims and told The Weekend Australian he believed the parliamentary inquiry would lead to more victims emerging.
Father Dillon is a critic of the church's handling of abuse cases. "Ultimately, the truth will set you free is a phrase we often use," Father Dillon said. "I think that's certainly true in terms of the church's protocols. The church's credibility has been almost lost for the wider community."
Asked whether Cardinal Pell or Archbishop Hart should appear, Father Dillon said: "Well, I think probably church leaders really have to be able to explain the processes that have been in place.
"Whether it's them or somebody on their behalf, the processes need to be carefully analysed."
A spokesman for Archbishop Hart said the church fully supported the inquiry.