ROME — Dingy sage-green curtains and three enormous shiny golden chandeliers in the Verdi Room of Rome’s Quirinale Hotel, a stone’s throw away from the main train station, provided an odd setting for one of the most important clerical sex-abuse hearings a senior Vatican official has ever faced.
The squeaky parquet-floored room, which is normally used for wedding receptions and first-communion parties, was transformed into a makeshift courtroom for Cardinal George Pell, head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, who was called to answer questions by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Pell was supposed to travel to Australia for the hearings last year, but ill health (backed up by ample doctor certification) apparently prohibited the 74-year-old from making the long journey. So the commission decided to come to Rome and conduct the questioning by video link, Australian time, which means the four-hour hearings started at 10 p.m. in Rome—and could last three or four days.
On Sunday, the first night of the inquiry, Pell was whisked into the room through a side door and sat at a table covered with a green cloth at the front of a room filled with about 50 journalists, several dozen priests and Australians supporting Pell, and some 20 survivors of sexual abuse, who used crowd-funding to pay for their trip to Rome
The cardinal never looked out at the crowd. Instead, his eyes were fixed solidly on the little silver camera in front of him as Gail Furness, a lawyer assisting the Royal Commission in what amounts to a prosecutorial role, asked questions from a courtroom in Sydney. At times the scene resembled one of those awkward Skype calls with either Furness or Pell talking over each and apologizing for the interruption.
Pell made it clear from the start that he was “not here to defend the indefensible,” by which he meant the Roman Catholic Church for its years of missteps on handling rampant clerical sex abuse. “The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those,” Pell said. “The church has, in many places, certainly in Australia, mucked things up, has let people down… but I’m not here to defend the indefensible.”
Instead, Pell was called to defend himself on two separate case studies the Royal Commission is looking into, including one involving Father Gerald Ridsdale, who was convicted of sexually assaulting 54 children—one as young as 4 years old— when he was a priest in Ballarat, Australia, where Pell is from and where he started his clerical journey.
Among the survivors who attended Pell’s hotel hearing was David Ridsdale, the perverted priest’s nephew who was also his victim, and who has accused Pell of trying to bribe him and his family for their silence. When the younger Ridsdale gave evidence to the Royal Commission last May, he recounted a conversation he had with Pell wherein the cleric allegedly asked him for his silence. As Ridsdale tells it, the exchange happened like this:
Ridsdale: “Excuse me, George, what the fuck are you talking about?”
Pell: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.”
Ridsdale: “Fuck you, George, and everything you stand for.”
Pell, who will surely be asked about the conversation during the three- to four-day hearing in Rome, has always denied the alleged bribery attempt. “To the best of my belief this conversation did not happen,” he said last year in a statement. “I was, and remain, extremely sympathetic to David Ridsdale, who because of his uncle suffered horrible abuse. I continue to regret the misunderstanding between us. At no time did I attempt to bribe David Ridsdale or his family or offer any financial inducements for him to be silent.”
Outside the Hotel Quirinale, Ridsdale held court with the press. “We are here for the truth. We need the Vatican hierarchy to stand up for what is right,” he said. “We hope we are the last victims of this abuse.”
He, along with many of the victims in attendance, wore red T-shirts with the words “No More Silence.” One man, Peter Blenkiron, wore a green T-shirt with a photo of himself when he was a young boy at the time he was abused, which, he told The Daily Beast, was when he lost his childhood.
In his testimony, Pell called Ridsdale’s behavior “a catastrophe, for the victims, and for the church.” And he admitted that in the 1970s, when he was a rising star in the Australian Church hierarchy, that he was quick to disbelieve reports of predatory priests. “I must say in those days, if the priests denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept that denial.”
But for many of the questions posed to him, Pell said he had no recollection, deferring to what he called “senior moments” and admitting, “I do not have perfect recall when it comes to events that happened more than 30 years earlier.” Which, of course, is a worrying defect considering he is at the helm of what is surely the most complex and complicated structure inside the Holy See as the head of its Secretariat for the Economy.
Pell is not directly accused of perpetrating sexual abuse in this particular hearing, but allegations that he was also fond of fondling have dogged him for decades. According to the Australian website on clerical sex abuse Broken Rites, Pell, when he was training to become a priest, “put his hand down the inside of [a young man’s] pants and got ‘a good handful’ of his penis and testicles” during some form of activity in a tent such as pillow fighting or wrestling.
Pell has long denied those allegations, which were apparently handled in 2002 by an internal investigation held behind closed doors by the Australian diocese, to which Pell belonged at the time. Whether those questions will be addressed during Pell’s testimony to the Royal Commission are of great interest to the dozens of Australian journalists and survivors who have come to Rome.
Also of great interest is what, if anything, Pope Francis will do in the way of reaction to Pell’s time on the stand and accusations against him, which will surely come to his attention.
“George Pell has long been regarded as Rome’s man in Australia, which necessarily involves prioritizing the interests of Rome above everyone else,” Nicky Davis of the Australia chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, told The Daily Beast last year. “More and more Australian Catholics strenuously disagree with Pell’s response to child sex crimes by clergy, but their views, like the cries for help of victims, are ignored.”