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.

Peter Fray

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