'The Church has let people down.' Cardinal Pell child abuse testimony

Victims and relatives of children who claim they were sexually abused by the Catholic Church hold placards as they stand outside the venue for Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney, Australia.Reuters

Senior cleric Cardinal George Pell has admitted the Catholic Church was more concerned with protecting its own reputation than helping abuse victims.

He said the Catholic Church made "enormous mistakes" and let people down in many places, certainly in Australia, where he served as Archbishop of Syndey before moving to Rome.

"I'm not here to defend the indefensible," he told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

"The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the church has in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has let people down." 

Pell, 74, whose evidence continues tomorrow, became the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify on sexual abuse of children in the Church. He held up a Bible as he was sworn in to answer questions.

Cardinal Pell, whose evidence was live blogged by the Guardian, said he had not known about paedophile priests in the Ballarat diocese where he worked in the 1970s and 1980s. The policy of moving repeat abuser Gerald Ridsdale around different parishes was a "catastrophe" for both victims and Church, he said. 

But he insisted he had no knowledge of Ridsdale's offending or that of another priest, John Day, given a new parish just one year after his resignation from his previous post. He also denied knowledge of the serious allegations against Christian Brothers Fitzgerald and Dowlan, although admitted he had heard "fleeting references".

He also admitted the Church had a "predisposition not to believe" victims who complained.

"At that stage, the instinct was more to protect the institution, the community of the church, from shame," he said.

Pell  moved to Rome to take up the high-ranking office of Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See. Doctors said the cardinal, who has a heart ailment, was too ill to fly so he gave evidence by video from the Hotel Quirinale. A group of 15 survivors travelled from Australia to Rome to watch.

ABC published some reaction from abuse survivors.

David Ridsdale, a nephew of Ridsdale, and who was abused by the priest, said he was encouraged by Pell's use of words such as "catastrophe" and "scandal" but the Church needed to do more.

"Words are one thing, actions are another. We're waiting for the actions which include ensuring not only that those catastrophes never happen again but to be acknowledging and explaining why those catastrophes happened."

Survivor Tim Lane said he was sceptical about claims not to remember. At 44, he could remember things that happened to him as a four-year-old. "These guys were priests in their 20s and that, and they can't recall and can't remember? Well, the whole world ain't that gullible."