This is the portrait of a deceitful man. We have waited over two and a half years but now we can read the unflinching verdict reached by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Cardinal George Pell.

With its last findings made public, it’s clear that no senior figure in any church who gave evidence to the commission has emerged as damaged as Pell.

Published in The Guardian

Tolling through those hitherto secret pages is the underlying verdict of the commission: that Pell might have, but did not, take action to protect the children of the Catholic community he served as a priest in Ballarat and bishop in Melbourne.

Pell’s excuses for doing so little are dissected forensically and rejected one by one. The commissioners condemn key claims in the cardinal’s evidence as implausible, inconceivable, untenable and unacceptable.

The clamour around the royal commission has long died down. It’s two and a half years since it produced its final report in a stack of volumes. The findings against Pell were hidden in there like a buried ordnance, exploding only now.

We always knew this was going to be bad for the cardinal. A clean bill of health might have seen the light of day at any time. But these findings were redacted so as not to poison the minds of jurors in the criminal trials he faced in Melbourne.

There he was in the box reproaching the commissioners for non sequiturs, circular reasoning and – his favourite – unstated premises. He was game in so many ways, batting on with his improbable testimony. And here is the commissioners’ reply over several dozen open pages: these are the truths you were keeping from us.

Pell claimed he never knew, he was too distracted, he was kept out of the loop, it was a different age back then, he didn’t have the authority he needed and he was deceived by officials, even bishops, while – Pell was forced to admit – priests and brothers in Ballarat and Melbourne were abusing children.

Most were not historic crimes. They were happening around Pell as he began his long climb to the top via the archdioceses of Melbourne and Sydney, an ascent made, it seems, without ever once embarrassing Rome.

Mighty ecclesiastical careers aren’t often made by men with slipshod memories who don’t know what’s going on around them. But that was the picture of himself Pell painted to the commission: a priest who didn’t gossip and didn’t keep his ear to the ground, and a bishop who didn’t ask hard questions and compel investigation.

The commissioners find that even on his own evidence he knew enough about the mad priest Peter Searson to know he had to be removed from his parish. “As Auxiliary Bishop to the Archbishop, 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.”

Pell knew enough about the brutally abusive Brother Edward Dowlan at St Patrick’s College to have, in the words of the report, “ensured that the matter was properly treated”. He didn’t and Dowlan went on abusing Christian Brothers students for more than 20 years before being jailed for dozens of offences against boys.

But above all the commissioners found – in direct contradiction to Pell’s evidence – that he must have known why Gerald Ridsdale was being moved from parish to parish in Ballarat: sex with children. Pell insisted he had heard no scuttlebutt about Ridsdale, though his crimes were common knowledge in a number of parishes and were known to the bishop and to most of the “consultors” on parish appointments with whom Pell sat in the 1970s.

I just didn’t know, insisted Pell. But the royal commission found: “It is inconceivable that the consultors did not know by this time, given the usual practice and the general knowledge in the community.” And the consultors and the bishop just moved the paedophile on.

Ridsdale would abuse children on an extraordinary scale for another 15 years. Pell walked him to court when he first faced charges in Melbourne. He’s now been convicted for child sex offences hundreds of times. He will die in jail.

For those who have been following the Pell saga for years, the royal commission’s verdict announced so late in the day is welcome but unsurprising. The cardinal’s failures have been canvassed in the parishes and the press, in documentaries and over years in the witness box of the commission. His denials were always wretched. Now the commission has said so too, officially.

This man did not do what he might to protect children. He was not straight with the royal commission. He has been acquitted of terrible crimes by the high court but the verdict of the commission on his conduct as a priest and bishop is terrible.

Pell has put a statement in his own defence. But how, I wonder, will his cheer squad cope with the commission’s findings? What dark plots will be hinted at here? What collusion between lawyers and journalists will be discovered to explain this grim result? Is the ABC about to cop it all over again?

Maybe, just maybe, his spruikers will now recognise that Pell is a human being, a pretty ordinary human being, who has fallen from grace and must now live with his reputation. Pity isn’t called for. What has been delivered here is something great royal commissions achieve: clarity.

By David Marr
Published in The Guardian
7 May 2020