George Pell Vatican church
Cardinal George Pell

How much did Cardinal George Pell know about historic child sex abuse allegations during the ‘70s and ‘80s? An awful lot, according to unredacted reports from the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse, released this morning. 

In 2016, Pell told the royal commission he was deceived about paedophile priests in “a world of crimes and cover-ups” and did not know about the abuse. In an interview last month, Pell said he would be “very surprised” if the royal commission’s report found he covered up actions of predator priests.

But the reports — case studies into the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne and the Catholic Church authorities in Ballarat, along with a final report into religious institutions — found Pell knew about and should have acted on children being abused in the dioceses of Ballarat and Melbourne in the 1970s and ’80s, where Pell served as a priest and bishop. 

The reports had been redacted to avoid prejudicing Pell’s trial on charges of sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990s. He was convicted but then unanimously acquitted by the High Court last month and has consistently denied all allegations of sexual abuse against him.

Pell was not deceived about Father Searson

The royal commission heard priest Peter Searson had abused children in schools and parishes across more than a decade — he also committed animal cruelty, carried a gun to school and showed children a dead body lying in a coffin. 

The commission found Pell would have been told about Searson’s abuse on multiple occasions, but failed to take action. 

In 1989, Pell was given a list of incidents and grievances about Searson and met with Norm Lalor, the CEO chairperson for primary staff at the Holy Family School, where Searson was being moved to.

Pell said he may have been told a teacher resigned after raising complaints of sexual misconduct by Searson, though said Lalor deceived him by not being upfront about the allegations. 

The royal commission didn’t accept Pell’s assertion that he had been “deceived” about both Searson and Gerald Ridsdale, Australia’s worst-abusing priests, during this time. 

“Bishop Pell had the capacity and opportunity to urge the archbishop to take action against Father Searson in order to protect the children of the parish and the Catholic community of his region,” the report said.

Pell conceded he could have been “a bit more pushy” for parties to take action. 

“It ought to have been obvious to him at the time [1989]. He should have advised the archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so,” the commission found.

Pell placed Searson on administrative leave in 1997 — the same year Season pleaded guilty to physically assaulting a child (though he was never charged with child sexual abuse).

Pell more worried about gossip than Ridsdale’s abuse

In 2016 it was revealed during the royal commission that Pell knew about child sex abuse as far back as 1973, but “considered measures of avoiding situations that might provoke ­gossip about it”. 

Risdale took groups of boys on overnight camps in 1973. Pell accepted he gave “momentary thought” to the possibility of child sexual abuse at these camps thanks to previous scandals. 

“We are satisfied that in 1973 Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps … By 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it,” the report found. 

Child sex abuse not noted in resignations

Pell also allowed priests accused of abusing children to resign on the basis of health reasons, the commission found. 

Father Nazareno Fasciale resigned in 1993 after admitting allegations he had abused children the ‘50s and ‘60s were true.

Pell knew about the sexual abuse complaints before meeting to discuss Fasciale’s resignation, though allowed him to resign on health reasons.

This concealed “the true reasons for his resignation from the public” at a time when “ the issue of child sexual abuse was well and truly on the agenda of the archdiocese”, the report said. 

It was a similar story with Father David Daniel, whose resignation on health grounds was accepted, despite Pell “probably” knowing about complaints of child sex abuse. 

A new investigation into sex child sexual abuse allegations against Pell is reportedly underway, launched just days after he was released from prison after fresh allegations were made. Pell continues to strenuously deny any allegations of child abuse against him. Victoria police declined to comment.