For more than 1,400 days, they waited.

Little kids but now grown up, the childhoods they’d left behind stained by trauma. They waited to discover what a Prince of the Church knew.

From those four days in 2016 when George Pell gave evidence from Rome via video link because his Vatican doctor declared him unable to fly to Australia; through the rest of the royal commission; through his trials, his appeals, and through a final month of delay.

Published in ABC News

They wanted to know what the royal commission had found Pell knew of the real character of paedophile priests who would later ruin their young lives.

Now, these people have an answer that for legal reasons, has been blacked out since December 2017.

The black marks are gone. The secrets are out. George Pell knew.

Cardinal George Pell’s convictions for sexually abusing teenage choirboys while Archbishop of Melbourne were last month unanimously overturned by the High Court after it found that no jury, acting rationally, could not have entertained a reasonable doubt the crimes were committed. That decision overturned a judgment of the Victorian Court of Appeal which had upheld the jury’s guilty verdict.

Today, it’s clear judges presiding over the five-year Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse repeatedly rejected the Cardinal’s evidence to them about the extent of his knowledge that other priests were paedophiles.

Pell had always emphatically asserted that he was kept in the dark. The royal commissioners say he wasn’t.

While in some cases his evidence about notorious allegations was accepted by the commission, many of his submissions in relation to what he knew about offending in Ballarat and Melbourne were described as “implausible”, “inconceivable” or “not tenable”.

What Pell knew

The commission found Pell knew of allegations of offending in the Ballarat diocese as early as 1973, when he was Episcopal Vicar for Education.

“[H]e also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it,” the commissioners wrote.

They found he wasn’t lied to by the notorious Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, about why they were moving Father Gerald Ridsdale — one of Australia’s worst paedophiles — from parish to parish to abuse ever more children. That, said the commissioners, was “inconceivable”.

Ridsdale’s movements were discussed at Bishop Mulkearns’ meetings with his priestly consultors, one of whom, from July 1977, was George Pell.

“We do not accept that Bishop Mulkearns lied,” the commissioners said, directly contradicting the key plank of Pell’s evidence from Rome.

“It is inconceivable in these circumstances that Bishop Mulkearns deceived his consultors by not telling them the true reason. There would be little utility in doing so. The secret was out …

“We are satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns told the consultors that it was necessary to move Ridsdale from the Diocese and from parish work because of complaints that he had sexually abused children. A contrary position is not tenable.”

As Ridsdale’s offending trajectory wore on, so many people knew — the Bishop, his secretary — a life-long friend of Pell’s, the monsignor (a friend of Pell’s mother), Pell’s cousin — another consultor, families, teachers, nuns.

The report says the “conduct of any consultor who did not advise against” Ridsdale being moved on “and who knew the reason Ridsdale … was being moved, is unacceptable.”

Pell was a consultor. That is, Pell’s conduct was unacceptable.

“The lives of dozens of children and their families, likely to be more than a hundred, were devastated by [Ridsdale’s] conduct,” the commission found.

The average age of Ridsdale’s victims was 10 for girls and 11 for boys.

“There was a catastrophic institutional failure which resulted in many children being sexually abused,” the royal commissioners said of Ballarat.

“The welfare of children was not the primary concern of Bishop Mulkearns and other senior members of the Diocese when responding to complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse against their priests.

“There is no doubt it should have been.”

The damage left behind

Through my journalism over the past five years, I’ve come to know many of the children whose lives would have been radically different had Bishop Mulkearns, Pell and others spoken up and referred Ridsdale to the police instead of to the next parish.

People like Donna Cushing, one of four siblings abused by Ridsdale, who buried her brother Shaun, who killed himself.

Donna’s other brother is Mark, who has attempted suicide seven times and speaks in a halting voice.

Paul Levey, who lived at the Mortlake presbytery with Ridsdale for nine months, was habitually raped — he also struggles to function.

Steve Blacker was one of the boys at the Mortlake school where a nun would estimate every boy in a class was abused by the priest.

To know that Pell and others were consultors and did nothing to stop Ridsdale is unmentionably hard for these good people and their parents to take.

They were nice little kids, targeted late in Ridsdale’s offending trajectory when the church had simply no excuse for shuffling him on. None of them had to be abused.

Tim Green is another Ballarat survivor who came forward to the royal commission to say that, at the town’s Eureka Stockade Swimming Pool, he told Father Pell, “we’ve got to do something about what’s going on at St Pat’s”.

“When Father Pell asked what he meant, Mr Green responded, ‘Brother Dowlan is touching little boys’. Father Pell said words to the effect of ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ and walked away.”

Pell claimed he didn’t say this. The report now shows the commissioners disagreed and sided with Tim Green’s account.

They found that in the early ’70s, Pell was told by students and priests about Brother Dowlan’s “infractions of a sexual nature with minors”.

“We accept that Cardinal Pell concluded at the time that Dowlan must, at the very least, have been unwise and imprudent,” the report says, adding that he should have told the school’s principal. The royal commission accepted that Cardinal Pell did however tell the school’s chaplain and was advised by the chaplain that the problem was being investigated.

‘A series of individual failures’

The royal commission also comprehensively rejects many of Pell’s claims about what he knew while in Melbourne, when he became Auxiliary Bishop and a member of Archbishop Frank Little’s Personnel Advisory Board.

It found he was one of a “a number of priests” who “received complaints or were made aware of allegations against priests” in the Archdiocese.

“[They, including] Bishop Pell had the capacity and opportunity to persuade the Archbishop to take action on the matters known to them and either did not do so or were ineffectual.”

It said those priests “should have advised Archbishop Little to act”, but “instead, they accepted the inaction of the Archbishop”.

“We consider that this constitutes a series of individual failures by those priests to advise, urge or influence the Archbishop to take action.”

The Commissioners found that the leadership of the Archdiocese dealt with complaints “in a way that sought to protect the Archdiocese from scandal and liability and prioritised the interests of the Church over those of the victims”.

Pell was on the church’s Personnel Advisory Board (PAB) when a serial paedophile priest, Nazareno Fasciale, was permitted to retire because of, officially, “ill health”.

“It was inconceivable that the true circumstances of Father Fasciale’s resignation were not discussed, when so many senior priests were present with knowledge of complaints against him,” the Commissioners found, saying they were “satisfied” it was discussed.

“Allowing Father Fasciale to resign ostensibly on health grounds was wrong. It had the effect of concealing the true reasons for his resignation from the public.”

Nazareno Fasciale died six weeks after he had been charged by Victoria Police for offences against children.

George Pell was one of many priests who attended a requiem mass for Fasciale in March 1996.

It was to be just four months before Pell’s appointment as Archbishop of Melbourne.

The ‘catastrophic consequences’ of inaction

One of the strangest paedophile priests, by George Pell’s own admission, in the Melbourne Archdiocese was Peter Searson at Doveton.

The Commission found that it was “implausible” that the Catholic Education Office (CEO) deceived Pell when he was Auxiliary Bishop about their concerns about Searson and “he ought reasonably to have concluded that action needed to be taken in relation to Father Searson”.

“Bishop Pell on his own evidence … ought reasonably to have concluded that action needed to be taken in relation to Father Searson,” the Commissioners found.

“It was incumbent on Bishop Pell, as an Auxiliary Bishop with responsibilities for the welfare of the children in the Catholic community of his region, to take such action as he could to advocate that Father Searson be removed or suspended or, at least, that a thorough investigation be undertaken of the allegations.”

“… 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.

“He should have advised the Archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so.”

Pell agreed he was told of a vague allegation of sexual misconduct.

“The fact that he was informed of it in a ‘non-specific’ way does not reduce the seriousness of the allegation,” the report says, adding that he “ought to have inquired further” about the exact nature of the allegation.

“If the information provided to Bishop Pell was not sufficiently specific, he ought to have requested a fuller explanation …”

The Commission also refused to believe Pell was in the dark about the “real truth” of why a delegation of staff from Holy Family Doveton went with a log of incidents to warn the-then Auxiliary Bishop about Searson’s “harassment of children”.

“In our view, any of those matters ought to have prompted investigation and action,” the Commissioners found.

“Each of those events carries an implication of sexual misconduct. They are all improper …

“Bishop Pell was in a senior position … The staff came as a delegation to him as an Auxiliary Bishop to complain about their employer.”

Apart from the concerns about children, the teachers said “Father Searson was obstructive and confrontational with staff”, prompting Pell to frame the meeting as more of an HR complaint.

But, the Commissioners found, “[Searson] had displayed cruelty to an animal in front of children and shown them a dead body in a coffin. There was a suggestion of sexual impropriety in that Father Searson was using the boys’ toilets unnecessarily, even if he had offered an explanation for that conduct.

“[One delegate] told Bishop Pell that Father Searson was mentally unwell and that something needed to be done. These matters, in combination with the prior allegation of sexual misconduct, ought to have indicated to Bishop Pell that Father Searson needed to be stood down.”

George Pell oversaw Searson’s ultimate removal from Holy Family Doveton, but that was 12 years after the school first became aware he was offending. The delegation from the school representatives to Pell as Auxiliary Bishop was five years into the 12.

The commissioners found the way Archdiocese handled Searson indicated “a failure of management and a failure by the individual Church personnel”.

That failure, clearly, from this report, extended to George Pell. He is one of the group of people who ensured that a dangerous paedophile was not removed from the school until 12 years after a little girl, Julie Stewart, ran crying from the confessional and straight to her principal to complain of the abuse.

As the Commission found, Searson’s abuse of a Holy Family student in 1992 — a full eight years after Julie’s abuse and three years after the Doveton delegation tried to warn Bishop Pell about Searson — “demonstrates the catastrophic consequences of inaction”.

Under Pell’s Melbourne Response compensation scheme for survivors, also criticised by the Royal Commission, Julie Stewart was given the princely compensation payment of $25,000, and forced to sign a deed of release. Her school principal, Graeme Sleeman, lost his career trying to bring Searson to justice.

These things stay with you

George Pell’s career, meanwhile, went from strength to strength.

Auxiliary Bishop to Archbishop of Melbourne to Archbishop of Sydney, to Cardinal, to Prefect for the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy — in essence, Vatican Treasurer.

George Pell wasn’t the only man in the Church who hid the truth about these awful crimes, but he became the most senior.

He built his career, and, indeed, delivered his evidence, on the premise that he was a pugilistic truth-teller.

The Royal Commission’s Final Report was delivered in the December 2017, five months after Pell was charged with child sex crimes not covered by the Royal Commission’s terms of reference.

Because of the charges, the Commissioners redacted anything that might poison a jury’s mind against Pell.

The High Court’s rejection of the jury’s guilty verdict in the Pell trial meant there was no jury left to poison and opened the way for the secrets of the Royal Commission’s report to finally be released.

The survivors and their families are relieved, but it doesn’t change their reality.

Over the past five years, I’ve sat on the phone to people who have lost relatives who were abused to suicide, heard victims cry as they describe trying to stop lurching from one mental health crisis to the next.

Some can’t hold down jobs, many frequently struggle to get out of bed.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Searson’s victim Julie Stewart told me how she remembered being eviscerated by a lawyer during cross-examination in Pell’s Melbourne Response scheme and it was “like having an autopsy, except you’re alive”.

Julie marches on, but these things stay with you.

Pell was not a bit player

In a statement yesterday, Cardinal Pell said he was surprised by some of the views of the Royal Commission about his actions. “These views are not supported by evidence,” he said.

The Commission didn’t reject all of Pell’s testimony. For instance, it accepted Pell’s evidence that he did not try to bribe Ridsdale’s nephew, David, who had been abused by his uncle, into staying quiet. It also said it was unlikely that Pell had said “I think Gerry’s been rooting boys again” after a funeral at the Ballarat Cathedral in 1983.

George Pell is, of course, far from alone. He was one part of a rotten system.

Some clerics discussed in the Royal Commission findings are bit players — elderly parish priests in far-flung country parishes, retired diocesan bureaucrats living out their days.

Many other bishops and monsignors have now met their maker. History will not look kindly upon the legacies of the late Archbishop Frank Little, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, Monsignors Leo Fiscalini and Gerry Cudmore, to name but a few.

But George Pell is alive. He is not a bit player. Apart from being the country’s most senior Catholic, he was also probably its most well-known.

This long-awaited report finally lays bare how Pell acquiesced, during what would become a glittering career, in institutional inaction against terrible crimes.

In turn, it shows what that means for the kids I’ve come to know.

By the findings of the Royal Commissioners alone, history will also not be kind to George Pell.

Louise Milligan is author of Cardinal, The Rise and Fall of George Pell and a reporter for ABC TV’s Four Corners.

By Louise Milligan
Published in ABC News
8 May 2020