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Pell brushes up on humility but points fingers elsewhere at royal commission

George Pell started his day with contrition at the royal commission into child sexual abuse. But he’s not taking responsibility for the Church’s failure to help victims.

It was a packed house at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this morning. After months of speculation, Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic, Cardinal George Pell (pictured), was finally in the witness box, and emotions were running high. The hearing room was packed with abuse survivors and their supporters, and there was a faint air of the guillotine.

Outside the Sydney hearing room, victims’ support groups maintained a vigil, setting up banners exhorting the Catholic Church to show mercy. Pell entered the building an hour early with his lawyer, slipping quietly through the group of photographers, his head down.

It’s a far cry from the Cardinal’s preferred haunts, the boardrooms and living rooms of the wealthy and powerful, where he has held court since being appointed in 2001. One of his first edicts upon his appointment was to require all Catholic schools to display his photo in a public place. Such was the local resistance to his elevation, many of the schools hung it next to the bathroom.

This morning, instead of wearing one of his tailored suits, hand-stitched to fit his tall, imposing frame, Pell was wearing simple clerical garb. He started off in a Kindly Old Duffer mode, apologising for taking his time to answer questions, saying that “when you get a little bit older, sometimes things come up slowly”. His air was of one trying to help, but having a little bit of trouble remembering exact names and dates.

Counsel assisting Gail Furness took him through a detailed series of questions about the Church’s response to allegations of abuse. At one point, Pell described a meeting in which Catholic officials referred to child sexual abuse as “special issues”.

By mid-morning, he was starting to get a bit testy, disputing various assertions made about the extent of the issue. Referring to complaints made in Catholic schools, he said “many of [them] are found not to be validated”. When Furness called for the data to support such an assertion, the public gallery applauded.

The current hearing involves the Church’s response to a complaint made by a man called John Ellis. It is closely examining the Church’s protocol for handling complaints about abuse, called “Towards Healing”.

Since the Cardinal was appointed in 2001, he has overseen 204 claims of sexual abuse, although most pre-date his arrival. Some 55 ordained priests are named in the complaints, the earliest of which date to abuse occurring in 1952. Almost $8 million has been paid out in compensation.

Ellis’ attempt to sue the Catholic Church for abuse suffered as a teenager went right through the legal system. As a result of the final judgment, Australia is the only country in the common-law world where the Church cannot be sued, as it has no corporate entity. However, Pell has said publicly in the past few weeks that the Church will cease using this defence and lift the corporate veil.

In a statement tendered to the royal commission, Pell expressed contrition for the treatment of Ellis:

I acknowledge and apologise to Mr Ellis for the gross violation and abuse committed by Aidan Duggan, a now deceased priest of the Sydney Archdiocese. I deeply regret the pain, trauma and emotional damage that this abuse caused to Mr Ellis.”

He went on to acknowledge mistakes had been made that had driven Ellis and the archdiocese further apart: “Also, certain steps were taken in the litigation that now cause me concern and that I would not repeat.”

The Cardinal’s other responses encompass the usual range of reactions from powerful figures in the judicial spotlight — I don’t recall doing that, I delegated that to someone else (who was incompetent), I’m really sorry about that, it won’t happen again.

Since it began in September last year, the royal commission has held public hearings into the responses to allegations of physical and sexual abuse by institutions around the country, including churches, Scouts Australia, government-run children’s homes and the YMCA.

Pell’s evidence is continuing.

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  • 1
    paddy
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Listening to Pell still giving evidence as I type this.
    The man has no shame and his inquisitors on the RC are not exactly accepting his dissembling.

    Pell makes *Rupert Murdoch* look like a credible witness.

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Someone else’s turn to have a “This is the most humble day of my life”?

  • 3
    david fisher
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Of course the immigration department will be making sure he doesn’t leave the country before the commission is finished with him: if ever there was a flight-risk, he is it!

  • 4
    Bo Gainsbourg
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Apparently Pell has the power to direct the church legal reps not to use the ‘Ellis defence’? If this is the case he should require it, presumably anything less is simply more shifty footwork. Contrition and regret and suggesting they ‘ought’ not to use it etc won’t cut it. Put the church on the same legal footing as others and give up the sick strategy of pretending they don’t employ abusers and haven’t got any money.

  • 5
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    “ When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as the end, the use of every means is sanctified, even deceit, treachery, violence, usury, prison, and death. Because order serves the good of the community, the individual must be sacrificed for the common good. ”

    Dietrich Von Nieheim
    bishop of Verden
    De schismate libri 111, A.D. 1411

    Nothing much has changed in the attitude of the Princes of the Church.

  • 6
    Wynn
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Humility didn’t last long.

  • 7
    Wynn
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Oh here we go… “I left the running of (the Ellis case) to the lawyers”.

  • 8
    Djbekka
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    My favourite before 1.30 when I had to go out was a version of the Vatican told us the complaints were from people who hated the church and trying to harm it (or the big boys made me do it). Or as Bart Simpson would say - We didn’t do it, if it was done, few were involved, if there were more, I didn’t know, I wasn’t there. Yikes!

  • 9
    paddy
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps the best thing about today’s “evidence” from Pell, is that the RC are going to go another 12 rounds with him tomorrow.

    His comment about John Ellis being a brilliant lawyer making an ambit claim (rather than a victim seeking justice) was perhaps the low point of a very low day for George P.
    Ugly stuff.

  • 10
    fractious
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    …the Church cannot be sued, as it has no corporate entity”

    Nor, if his responses are any guide, is its leader in this country possessed of a conscience. I’m sure it’s simply coincidence that he’s making all these “promises” of better behaviour on the part of the church now that he’s leaving the position of boss cocky.

  • 11
    leon knight
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Once more Diddy, I am in awe of your work…what a priceless quotation.
    Pell could have said it personally at any point in his career.
    No wonder Abbot reveres the man - twin consciences..!!

  • 12
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    I see, so poor old George is now having a bit of trouble recalling details, is he? So, what is the new job that George will soon be off to? Why, it’s absorbing and overseeing the intricate details of of the Vatican’s vast financial holdings.
    You’d think that would need a sharp eye for minutiae and excellent recall, wouldn’t you?
    Oh well, perhaps George is just like the rest of us; our minds tend to work a fair bit better, when they’re concerned with things that we’re interested in. The extended suffering of the vulnerable and innocent?…ehh, not so much. Immense wealth and the opulent trappings of power?…oh look, it’s all five senses working overtime.

  • 13
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Also, that folder in George’s hand does seem a bit thin for 204 abuse cases, doesn’t it?

  • 14
    DiddyWrote
    Posted Monday, 24 March 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Thanks LK, it is a remarkable quote. I came across it in Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece, Darkness at Noon which is a fictional account of an Old Bolshevik who runs afoul of Stalin purges and his Show Trials.
    Koestler quite correctly spotted another Totalitarian regime which would stop nothing in the Roman Catholic Church.

  • 15
    UTS LIBRARY
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Pell makes it clear in his witness statement, his attitude to the RC.
    paragragh 63
    “Like other bishops in Australia, I am answerable only to the Holy Father”
    Watching the examination, what I saw was a man of exceeding vanity and arrogance, without the slightest trace of humility, assuring us that he would not accept any responsibility unless it reflected well on himself,and….deary me, this questioning is tedious.

  • 16
    The Old Bill
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    My phone ring tone is a sound byte from Q&A a year or so ago

    When I was in the UK recently preparing some young boys____

  • 17
    Margot Saville
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Great quote. thanks.

  • 18
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Pell is a liar and will not raise any veils on the Catholic Church. He can say what he likes to the commissions but, in a months time, he will be residing in the Vatican so anything he says will have no validity with any newcomer to the position.
    The only solution is for all churches to become incorporated entities; I notice that Pell has not raised this possibility.
    For the victims we do not want another James Hardie compensation fiasco.

  • 19
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    George Pell didn’t look remotely sincere. He might as well having been brushing off crumbs from his dishdasha (Omani version of a clerical get up/caftan)I wouldn’t ask that man for a street direction.

    I second and third PADDY.

  • 20
    Wynn
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Despite his protestations that he now knows better, various of Pell’s answers expose his true attitude. The spluttering and apparent disbelief that victims do not immediately disclose, his assertion that victims should receive compensation, but not damages, and the odd little rant about the separation of church and state and church not being held to higher standards than a sporting club. Not to mention the comment about Mr Ellis already quoted above by Paddy.

    It must be beyond infuriating for victims to sit through.

  • 21
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    His conscience is queer.

  • 22
    Posted Wednesday, 26 March 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    KLEWSO: Hehehehe

  • 23
    64magpies
    Posted Monday, 31 March 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Having just read the above comments as opposed to those in the SMH I have finally made the decision as to which subscription I’m going to hold onto. Well done guys.

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