CANBERRA, Australia — A senior Vatican official told an Australian sex abuse inquiry on Thursday that he did not immediately act when a boy raised abuse allegations against a cleric in the 1970s and should have done more.
But Australian Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ top financial adviser, denied allegations that he angrily dismissed an allegation against the same cleric made by another schoolboy, attempted to bribe an abuse victim to stay quiet and joked about a pedophile priest long before that priest was charged.
Pell was giving evidence for a fourth and final day to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from a Rome hotel conference room a short distance from the Vatican.
Pell has been accused by lawyers this week of deflecting blame for Catholic Church inaction against pedophiles in the dioceses of Melbourne and Ballarat by testifying that he was kept unaware of the allegations through cover-ups by church officials.
Pell was asked on Thursday if he agreed with some Australian commentators’ opinion that he was “the target of a witch-hunt.”
“I’ve never expressed such a view, but I must confess the idea has occurred to me,” Pell said via videolink to the inquiry in Sydney.
Pell told the inquiry he was a junior priest in Ballarat in 1974 when an unnamed student at St. Patrick’s College told him that a Christian Brothers teacher Edward Dowlan “is misbehaving with boys.”
“I suppose it was technically a complaint, a lament,” Pell said.
Asked by commission chairman Peter McClellan what he did about it, Pell replied: “I didn’t do anything about it.”
Pell said he eventually raised concerns about Dowlan with the school chaplain. The chaplain replied that the Christian Brothers order was “dealing with” the allegations. Dowlan was later removed from the school.
But Dowlan continuing to abuse children as a teacher at other schools until 1985.
“With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more,” Pell said.
A former St. Patricks student, identified as BWF, has told the commission that he was 14-years-old in the early 1970s when he went to the cathedral presbytery, told Pell that Dowlan had molested his younger brother and demanded to know what action Pell would take.
“Pell became angry, yelled at me: ‘Young man, how dare you knock at this door and make demands,’” BWF told the commission last year.
“We argued for a bit and he told me to go away and shut the door on me,” BWF said.
Pell said Thursday he did not live at that presbytery at the time and described the language he allegedly used as “ridiculous.”
“The suggestion that I would speak like that to a young person in distress is absolutely false,” Pell said.
David Ridsdale has told the commission that Pell offered him a bribe to stay silent in 1993 when Ridsdale confided that he had been raped by his uncle, notorious pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.
Pell denied the younger Ridsdale’s evidence that Pell, then the auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, had asked: “What would it take for you to keep quiet?”
Pell said he “displeased and upset” David Ridsdale by accompanying the pedophile priest to his first appearance in the Melbourne Magistrates Court on child abuse charges in April 1993, two months after Pell’s contested telephone conversation with the nephew. Pell said on Thursday that accompanying Australia’s worst pedophile priest to court had been a mistake.
Pell has testified that he did not know until 1993 about multiple child abuse allegations against Ridsdale spanning decades.
Pell on Thursday denied evidence to the commission that he was overheard by an altar boy at a Ballarat funeral in 1983 joking with a fellow priest about Ridsdale was having sex with boys.
Pell said it was a “disastrous coincidence” that five known pedophile Catholic clerics had been operating in Pell’s hometown of Ballarat while he served there as a priest.
“We now know it was one of the very worst places in Australia” for child sex crime, Pell said.
The two dozen Australian abuse victims and their companions who traveled across the globe to witness Pell’s testimony had hoped for a meeting with the pope before they return home on Friday.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said no papal audience was planned with the victims.
However, the survivors had a meeting scheduled Thursday morning Rome time with the Rev. Hans Zollner, who is a member of the pope’s sex abuse advisory commission.
An emotional and visibly exhausted David Ridsdale said several survivors would meet with Pell on Friday and planned to tell him they believe the church still hasn’t grasped the impact of trauma on abuse survivors.
“We hear so much people say things like: ‘It was a different time, or we didn’t know.’ I don’t buy it because there is never a good time to rape children and we need the dialogue to change so people start saying: ‘I can’t believe how ignorant we were and how can we do better,’” David Ridsdale told reporters outside the hotel.
The royal commission — which is Australia’s highest form of investigation — is investigating how Pell dealt with abuse allegations as a priest, educator and adviser to the Ballarat bishop, as well as how the Melbourne archdiocese responded to allegations of abuse, including when Pell served as auxiliary bishop.
Pell told the inquiry that he met with the pope on Monday and arranged to provide a daily summary of what happened at the royal commission. Pell said he did not discuss his evidence with the pope.
“No, not really. Not at all,” Pell said.