A group of Australian bishops have emphasized Cardinal George Pell’s record of leadership against clergy sex abuse following critical news broadcasts and comments from a member of the pontifical council against abuse.
“He is a man of integrity who is committed to the truth and to helping others, particularly those who have been hurt or who are struggling,” seven bishops said of the cardinal in a June 3 statement
They said the cardinal was one of the first bishops to implement a comprehensive response to investigate alleged sex abuse by Catholic clergy and to help abuse victims.
The seven bishops included Archbishops Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Timothy Costelloe of Perth, Julian Porteous of Hobart, and Christopher Prowse of Canberra-Goulburn. Bishop Peter Comensoli of Broken Bay and Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney Terence Brady also signed the statement.
They voiced agreement with Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, who said June 1 that Cardinal Pell “has always been determined to address the evil of clergy sexual abuse in the Church.”
On Sunday the Australian Channel Nine show “60 Minutes” discussed the response to Catholic clergy abuse in Australia.
That broadcast and other news coverage revisited several accusations against the cardinal, including claims that he moved a known abusive priest and was dismissive towards an abuse victim who reported abuse. The cardinal has rejected the claims, which concern alleged incidents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Cardinal Pell is a prefect of the newly formed Secretariat for the Economy, which is overseeing Vatican finances, and a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on curial reform. He is a former archbishop of both Sydney and Melbourne.
Archbishop Hart, who served as vicar general for Cardinal Pell when he was Archbishop of Melbourne, said Pell “took the lead” in making a speedy response to sexual abuse by clergy.
The archbishop said the criticisms of Pell date back to 2002, and that Cardinal Pell had responded by refuting the claims in a sworn statement. Cardinal Pell also addressed the claims in a 2013 inquiry by the Victorian parliament, Archbishop Hart said.
The current Melbourne archbishop called for fair treatment of the cardinal.
The Channel Nine broadcast included critical comment from clergy abuse survivor Peter Saunders, a British member of the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, who called for the removal of Cardinal Pell from his positions.
Saunders charged that the cardinal’s position was “untenable” and claimed Cardinal Pell acted “with callousness, cold-heartedness, almost sociopathic.”
On May 31 a spokesman for Cardinal Pell said the broadcast was “false and misleading,” and outrageous in its coverage. The spokesman said the broadcast included “incorrect and prejudicial material” in light of other evidence, including the cardinal’s own testimony under oath to abuse commissions.
Cardinal Pell’s spokesman said the cardinal has never met Saunders, who “seems to have formed his strong opinions without ever having spoken” to Cardinal Pell. The spokesman praised Saunders’ work with the abuse commission, but said he is not well informed about the claims against the cardinal and their treatment in previous hearings.
Saunders’ comments also prompted a May 31 response from the Holy See Press Office. Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the cardinal has “always responded carefully and thoroughly to the accusations and questions posed by the competent Australian authorities.” Fr. Lombardi said Saunders’ statement was “entirely personal” and not on behalf of the commission.
On June 2, the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors also responded to the Australian broadcast, saying the council has “no jurisdiction to comment on individual cases or inquiries.”
The pontifical council said all appropriate questions are being addressed by the Truth, Justice and Healing Council in Australia, which is coordinating local Churches’ responses to the royal commission’s findings.
The pontifical council reaffirmed its dedication to its mission to help the Church protect minors and to ensure the interests of abuse survivors and victims are made paramount. The commission said it is essential that those in authority in the Church respond promptly and transparently, with the intention of achieving justice.
The statement of the seven Australian bishops voiced appreciation for Cardinal Pell’s “strong and unfailing support” for the royal commission investigating abuse and noted his readiness to assist the commission.
They also addressed criticisms of Cardinal Pell’s personality.
“His style can be robust and direct; he does not wear his heart on his sleeve. But underneath he has a big heart for people,” they said.
“He has responded to criticisms that have been made of his handling of these matters over the years, acknowledged mistakes frankly, and apologized for them.”