VATICAN CITY – One of the highest-ranking Vatican officials is being compelled to testify in public starting Sunday about clerical sex abuse, an unusual demonstration of holding even the most senior Catholic bishops accountable.
Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, will testify in a Rome hotel conference room for three nights running, answering questions via video link from Australia’s Royal Commission with his accusers on hand to confront him.
The arrangements, including the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. testimony window to suit Australian time zones, were made after the 74-year-old Pell asked to be excused from traveling home to testify because of previously undisclosed heart conditions that made flying too risky.
The arrangement has had the unintended consequence of magnifying the event, which might otherwise have remained confined to a few news cycles in Australia. Now European and American media will be covering a story about pedophile priests, the rape of children and the church’s botched cover-up — a story the Vatican wants absolutely nothing to do with.
Pell’s testimony will begin just hours before “Spotlight,” the drama of the Boston Globe’s investigation into how the church systematically shielded pedophiles for years, vies for as many as six Academy Awards.
Pell has appeared twice before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Royal Commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, is examining how the Catholic Church and other institutions dealt with decades of abuse across Australia. It cannot initiate criminal charges, but can recommend referring individual cases to police and prosecutors.
Pell, born and raised in the Catholic stronghold of Ballarat, has been dogged for years by allegations that he mishandled cases of abusive clergy when he was archbishop of Melbourne and later Sydney, where he led the Australian church until Pope Francis named him the Vatican’s top finance manager in 2014.
“He is a man of integrity who is committed to the truth and to helping others, particularly those who have been hurt or who are struggling,” seven Australian archbishops wrote in a statement last year.
Pell has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, and has apologized to victims for what he called the “profoundly evil” actions of priests who raped and molested children.
His defenders say he has been made the scapegoat for a problem that long predated him.
“He (Pell) is a man of integrity who is committed to the truth and to helping others, particularly those who have been hurt or who are struggling.”
Previous Australian inquiries have concluded that Pell created a victims’ compensation program mainly to limit the church’s liability, and that he aggressively tried to discourage victims from pursuing lawsuits.
Pell’s request to testify from Rome enraged Australian abuse survivors, who accuse him of cowardice and of doing whatever he could to shield church assets from their lawsuits.
More than a dozen survivors are traveling to Rome to be on hand for the testimony, thanks in part to an Australian crowdfunding initiative that raised more than 200,000 Australian dollars (about $145,000) in a few days, as well as proceeds from a viral YouTube video, “Come Home (Cardinal Pell).”
One survivor heading to Rome is Andrew Collins, who was repeatedly raped as a child in Ballarat by priests and religious brothers and has suffered depression and post-traumatic stress ever since. He told the commission that he tried to kill himself four times, in part because his staunchly Catholic family effectively disowned him after he went public with his tales of abuse.
“I have literally lost my whole family to this. Not just my sisters and parents, but aunts, uncles and cousins,” he testified last year in demanding a more comprehensive compensation scheme so victims can get psychological help.
Dr. Cathy Kezelman, president of Adults Surviving Child Abuse, an Australian support group, said an enormous amount of anger is directed at Pell from victims who see him as representing all that was wrong with the Australian church.
“He is in a position of great power and a symbol of a hierarchy and a system of power which to many repeatedly failed them and continues to do so with perceived hollow apologies, lack of contrition but more so, no real accountability,” she said in an email.
The commission’s current hearings relate to abuse in Ballarat, where scores of children were abused by Catholic clergy from the 1960s to the 1980s. Many of the victims later died in a cluster of abuse-related suicides. The commission is also looking at how the Melbourne archdiocese responded to allegations of abuse, including when Pell was auxiliary bishop.
Pell has been accused of ignoring warnings about an abusive teacher, attempting to bribe a victim of one of Australia’s most notorious pedophiles to stay silent and being part of a committee that shuffled the pedophile between parishes.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks the global abuse scandal, praised the commission’s work as “the purest example of holding bishops accountable that we’ve seen to date.”
Transcripts of public hearings are published online, including documentation as confidential as email exchanges between attorneys and clients.
“It has not been Catholic Church-bashing,” Doyle added. “They are looking at the response by all institutions.”