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Amy Olver

Published: 08 May 2020
Author: Amy Olver and Tara Dakin

Royal Commission finds Pell aware of child abuse

Yesterday’s release of previously redacted material regarding George Pell brings to light the extent of the Cardinal’s knowledge of the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

Why were redactions made in the first place?

When the Royal Commission released its findings in December of 2017 into allegations and complaints of abuse in the Melbourne and Ballarat diocese, they were published with heavy redactions of the evidence which George Pell gave before the Commission. This was done to avoid prejudicing any legal proceedings in relation to Pell, who was facing five charges of child sex abuse at the time.

However, after the High Court acquitted Pell of the charges against him last month, there was mounting pressure for the Royal Commission’s redacted findings to be published as they could no longer prejudice Pell’s criminal trial.

The redactions, tabled in the Senate and then made public yesterday, related to George Pell’s knowledge of the allegations of abuse and his response to complaints against the priests concerned. This included his knowledge of notorious offenders and paedophile priests such as Gerald Ridsdale, who he lived with for a period in 1973..

The redactions uncovered

The redacted sections of the report reveal that in as early as 1973, George 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.”

Knowledge about Father Peter Searson

Father Peter Searson died in 2009 without facing criminal charges, but the Commission heard allegations of abuse by Searson spanning across a decade. The unredacted documents now expose a wilful lack of action taken by Pell to remove Father Searson.

The report details how Pell failed to act even after Pell had met with a delegation of teachers who raised allegations about sexual misconduct by Father Searson in 1989. The Commission stated, “he [Pell] ought reasonably to have concluded that action needed to be taken in relation to Father Searson” and that “he should have advised the Archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so”.

Knowledge about Father Gerald Ridsdale

The redacted portions of the report also reveal details of how “Father Pell turned his mind to the prudence of Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps” and that “the most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child then they could sexually abuse a child or at least provoke gossip about such a prospect.”

Further, the Commission found that while advisor to Bishop Mulkearns in the 1980s , Pell was informed that the reason Father Risdale was moved from a parish at Mortlake was due to “sexual transgressions”. The Commission found the Bishop had informed his “consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the Diocese and from parish work because of complaints that he had sexually abused children”.

Knowledge about Father Baker

The unredacted report detailed that whilst Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Cardinal Pell was informed that Father Baker was likely to be charged regarding “an incident in Brighton in 1965”. The redactions stated that "despite that knowledge, Archbishop Pell did not stand down Father Baker at that point in time”. Father Baker remained in his position at a parish where the Church was attached to a primary school in North Richmond, until being stood down in May 1997 over allegations of sexual abuse.

Knowledge about Ted Dowlan

The redactions further revealed that by the early 1970s, even though Pell had been informed by students and other priests about Christian Brother Ted Dowlan's offending, he did not tell the Bishop of Ballarat at the time. The report now reads that "Cardinal Pell told us [the Commission] that, with hindsight, he should have done more."

Additionally, the unredacted portions now expose that when Cardinal Pell was informed by a student of St. Patrick’s College “that Father Dowlan was touching boys”, he said “words to the effect of ‘don't be ridiculous’ and walked away.

What is the significance of these redactions being released?

The importance of the release of these documents was addressed in our previous blog: Pell verdict paves way for release of Royal Commission documents.

The information contained in these reports, previously redacted, provide important evidence for survivors pursuing civil and criminal claims for abuse by clergy members, particularly as they pertain to the Church’s knowledge of the risk of abuse by the above-mentioned clergy. In civil claims in particular, a key component of a successful claim is establishing that the Church (or other institution depending on the type of claim) knew or ought to have known of the risk of abuse and failed to take steps to ensure the safety of the person who was abused.

Survivors are now in a stronger position than ever to establish that the Church knew, or at the very least ought to have known, of the risk of the abuse by Father Searson, Father Ridsdale, Father Baker and Ted Dowlan.

The significance of these findings is also further proof of the mass of evidence held by the Catholic Church that prior to the Royal Commission was not freely available to survivors. This power imbalance is, thanks to the evidence revealed as part of the Royal Commission, slowly starting to shift towards survivors of abuse, although there is still a long way to go before full transparency is achieved.

If you or somone you know has suffered abuse we encourage survivors to make an enquiry for a free first appointment with us via email at enquires@rctlaw.com.au or call 1300 366 441.

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