The Man Who Forgot The True Assets Of The Church

04/03/2016 1:38 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
FILE - This May 28, 2008 file photo shows Cardinal George Pell addressing a press conference for World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia. On Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 the Vatican is playing down an Australian cardinal's comments that Pope Benedict XVI's decision to resign was "slightly destabilizing," saying cardinals are not media savvy. Cardinal George Pell told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that the pope "was well aware that this was a break with tradition, slightly destabilizing." The comments were interpreted by the Italian media as unusual criticism of the pope. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, files)

It's sadly ironic that the man charged with cleaning up the Vatican's finances doesn't understand the true value of Church assets. But after four days of evidence to the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses To Child Sexual Abuse, Cardinal George Pell made it abundantly clear, and in doing so shredded his standing as a moral leader.

Pell would have us believe that for decades abuse happened around him, unbeknownst to him, in Victoria through out the 1970s, '80s and '90s, without anyone in his cloistered circle of colleagues detailing for him specifics of abuse against children by priests.

It was, said Pell, "an extraordinary world of crimes and cover-ups, and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed".

But Pell hit several low points during his evidence -- at one point audibly shocking observers when he said abuse committed by Gerald Ridsdale, one of Australia's worst paedophile priests, "was a sad story that wasn't of much interest to me". Days later, he tried to wind it back, telling the commission he messed up.

His original statement was the one of the biggest bombshells of the Commission, which has been investigating how the church responded to abuse in the Ballarat diocese, and it goes to the heart of how this massive institution has responded to abuse across the globe.

And it also goes to the heart of the man, who has spent his life trying to protect his beloved institution.

He "did nothing" when, in 1974, a student complained to him about paedophile priest Ted Dowlan, a man who abused 20 children at several Victorian schools between 1971 and 1985.

Pell's response after a schoolboy told him Dowlan was "misbehaving"?

"I didn't do anything about it. Well, I eventually did. I eventually inquired with the school chaplain."

When asked why he didn't take the complaint to investigators, insurance companies, the police or even to the Christian brothers themselves, he responded that he presumed it was being looked after appropriately, not just denied.

He also admitted to the Commission that he let a paedophile priest retire on the grounds of ill health despite knowing for years there were complaints about him.

This image of Pell -- that of a man who rose through the Church as a consulter to bishops, as a vicar of education and an auxiliary bishop, without once being told the specifics of sexual abuse by his colleagues before he became archbishop of Melbourne -- is, in the Commission's own words, implausible.

Completely implausible.

And left in the wake are survivors -- some who maintain their faith and others who no longer do -- but all who were, at some point, true assets of the church. Because what is a church without its people?

It's true that Pell was among the first to enact a church response to abuse, with his Melbourne Response in 1996. But the scheme has been lambasted by survivors, in part because it discouraged people from going to the police.

The Commission previously found it was not independent enough from the church, and Pell has previously admitted he wanted to avoid large damages claims (the scheme is capped at $50,000).

Pell told the commission in 2014 he set up the response after Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett called him and said ''now you clean this thing up and there won't be a royal commission''.

Survivors who witnessed his testimony up close in Rome have said they felt Pell was not honest or truthful. Others said it was not up to them to call for his resignation. And while everyone awaits the Commission's recommendations, it's not really up to the judicial body what to do with him either, now he's living in a city state in Rome.

It will ultimately be up to Pope Francis, who will no doubt find his chief cardinal of the Secretariat for the Economy has dragged his baggage all the way to Rome. He is, after all, charged with cleaning up the Vatican's finances. But he has left his old house out of order.

Survivors, in a letter, have asked the Pope to meet with them, and are still waiting on his response. There'll be another letter the Pope will have to give close consideration to. Pell turns 75 in June, an age when cardinals are required to tender their resignations for the Pope's consideration.

After the past four days, the Pontiff may have no choice but to accept that resignation.

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