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Cardinal Pell, Archbishop Fisher respond to Ballarat allegations
After the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard extremely distressing accounts of victims of sexual abuse by several priests and brothers in the Ballarat diocese in the 1960s and 1970s, a Four Corners TV program featured a British Catholic, Peter Saunders, attacking Cardinal George Pell, and calling on him to resign.
Mr Saunders has no direct knowledge of Australia nor the history of clerical sexual abuse in this country.
Despite this, he was given prime time on Australian TV to attack Cardinal Pell who has not only played a leading role in addressing the crisis in the Catholic Church in Australia, but has been fully forthcoming in responding to all inquiries about it over many years.
Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said the cardinal has worked hard to rid the church of the "evil of clergy sexual abuse".
He added, "I hope all Australians who believe in a fair go will give Cardinal Pell the opportunity to answer the criticisms that have been raised in both the Royal Commission and the media before drawing any final conclusions."
Both Cardinal Pell (writing from Rome) and Sydney's Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP issued lengthy responses.
Archbishop Fisher's statement was addressed to members of the Sydney Catholic community, but has wider ramifications.
Titled, "Speaking the truth in love", words taken from St Paul's letter to the Ephesians, Archbishop Fisher wrote:
"The stories emerging from the Royal Commission hearings in Ballarat and elsewhere are harrowing and for many people demoralising.
"We are appalled by the conduct of some priests and religious, by the failures of supervision by some of our leaders, above all by the damage done to young lives, to whole lives, in the worst cases even occasioning suicide.
"We may feel disillusioned, contaminated, ashamed. Please know that your Archbishop and your priests share these feelings.
"I am determined that we will do all we can to ensure such things never happen again in our Church; that those entrusted with the care of the young and vulnerable "care for the lambs" and keep them safe; and that those already harmed are brought justice and compassion.
"Many things are being said about the Church at the moment, some of them fair, some of them not so fair. It is alleged, for instance, that we are engaged in self-protective legal evasions.
"In fact, my predecessor, Cardinal Pell, was the first Church leader in Australia to introduce a more contemporary process to confront this evil and be repeatedly apologised when mistakes were made.
"I am committed to learning from this experience and from all that is being revealed in the Royal Commission and its findings.
"In the Archdiocese of Sydney we now ensure that all victims of abuse at the hands of a Sydney priest or church worker have someone who will listen to their concerns and help them to obtain support, including financial assistance.
"We try to help victims wherever possible to resolve these matters without litigation, so that they are not put through a gruelling court process. Where they wish to seek legal redress, we assist them in identifying the correct person or body to sue and we ensure that sufficient funds are available for compensation or settlement.
"We have also joined survivors' groups and the Royal Commission in calling for a third option: an independent, national redress scheme, for which the Church would of course pay its share but which would allow independent investigation and assessment of needs.
"Whichever way survivors choose to go, I am determined they will be given every assistance. There will be no excuses, no cover-ups, no evasion of responsibility.
"I have ordered a complete review of our professional standards and safeguarding practices in the Archdiocese and will soon be announcing further improvements in our approaches. We must always respond to allegations with compassion and justice.
"We want to have the best contemporary testing and discernment for our seminarians; appropriate training and supervision for all those who work with the young and the vulnerable; improved protocols and responses to allegations and needs of survivors; full cooperation with government inquiries and all civil authorities; use of lay professionals to assist us to get this right; ears and hearts open to learning from past mistakes and the best contemporary wisdom in these matters.
"I encourage all victims of abuse to contact the police.
"Other support is available to victims and their families via CatholicCare counselling 9307 8100 and Lifeline 13 11 14 (available 24/ 7).
"Though we have much to lament and more humiliation and purification ahead for the Church, I hope and pray we will emerge a humbler, more compassionate Church at the end of all this, a Church more worthy of Christ and His people.
"Please pray in this Pentecost season that the Holy Spirit will bring forth renewal in our Church in "love, joy and peace, patience, kindness and goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self- control" (Gal 5:22)."
Archbishop Fisher concluded by conveying his thanks to priests, staff, volunteers and parishioners "for your generous perseverance and for your prayers. Please remember all the victims and their families in your prayers at this most difficult time."
Responding promptly to allegations that he "must have known" about sexual abuse of Catholic school children in Ballarat, given at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Cardinal George Pell issued a detailed statement to the Royal Commission.
The statement has now been recorded as an exhibit by the Royal Commission.
Cardinal Pell said:
"Like everyone who has been following the Royal Commission's hearings in Ballarat this week, I have been horrified once again by survivors' accounts of the abuse they have suffered. Also the terrible impact it has had on their lives and families and the Catholic community of Ballarat.
"The suicide of so many victims is an enormous tragedy. The crimes committed against them by priests and brothers are profoundly evil and completely repugnant to me.
"A number of claims have been made concerning my own response during these years. Many of the issues have already been addressed by me in the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry in 2013, and my submission to that inquiry, and a transcript of my evidence, are available on the Victorian Parliament's website.
"I stand by the statements I made to the Victorian Parliament.
"I also note that under its terms of reference the Royal Commission can access all material from previous inquiries, including the Victorian Inquiry, which dealt with these matters extensively.
"The Commission stated today that it will request a statement from me.
"Over the last 24 hours I have been accused of being complicit in the moving of a known paedophile, of ignoring a victim's complaint, and of bribery. These matters again require an immediate response and it is important to correct the record particularly given the false and misleading headlines.
"Firstly, while out of the greatest respect for Mr Green, as I have stated previously, I have no recollection of a conversation with Mr Green in 1974, more than 40 years ago. Having recently read his statement to the Commission I still cannot remember Mr. Green or the conversation. To the best of my belief, this conversation did not happen. I stand by my previous statements.
"Secondly, I never moved [Fr] Ridsdale out of Mortlake Parish. I never moved him anywhere. I would never have condoned or participated in a decision to transfer Ridsdale in the knowledge that he had abused children, and I did not do so.
"I was a member of the College of Consultors for Ballarat from 1977 until I left Ballarat in 1984. Membership of the Consultors gave me no authority over Gerald Ridsdale or any other priest in Ballarat.
"My recollection is that Bishop Mulkearns did not raise any paedophilia allegations against Ridsdale at the Consultors meetings I attended, or at any time before or after such meetings.
"Contrary to some media reports, minutes of the meetings of the Consultors are not "secret" and were produced to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry which did not raise them in the hearings or in their final report. Indeed, I addressed these meetings in my submission to the Victorian Inquiry.
"Finally, 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.
"At the time of our discussion the police were already aware of allegations against Gerald Ridsdale and were investigating.
"Then, and now, I supported these police investigations. I have previously made a sworn denial of these allegations and I reiterate that denial.
"I am committed to complete co-operation with the Royal Commission. I will address in full all matters it wishes to raise in any statement requested from me before I make any further comment."
Cardinal Pell concluded, "I have the deepest sympathy for the victims of abuse, their families and the community of Ballarat for what they have suffered. Once again, I will answer allegations and criticisms of my behaviour openly and honestly."
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 28 No 5 (June 2015), p. 2
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