Sex abuse scandal has followed Cardinal George Pell for decades – Washington Post
George Pell admits walking Gerald Ridsdale to court was ‘a mistake’ #RoyalCommission https://t.co/6tM79dDMhV pic.twitter.com/4cTgwvEPXa
— The Age (@theage) March 3, 2016
In 1993, George Pell was a rising star in the Catholic Church in Australia, his resume sterling, his ambition well-known. After receiving a PhD from Oxford, he spent more than a decade as education vicar in the Victorian city of Ballarat, then rose to become auxiliary bishop of Melbourne.
So that year, when his onetime housemate and former chaplain of a Ballarat religious school was charged with sexually assaulting young boys, Pell’s superiors called on him for support.
As the chaplain, Gerald Ridsdale, made his first appearance in Melbourne Magistrate’s Court, Pell walked beside him in solidarity, clad in his black priest’s robe and jacket. The hope, Pell would later say, was that his presence alongside Ridsdale would “lessen his time in jail.”
A photo of the moment made the rounds in Australian media, stoking outrage among victims and their supporters who wondered why the high-ranking clergyman had accompanied the accused pedophile to court. Ridsdale would go on to plead guilty to the charges and later be imprisoned on dozens of other counts of sexually assaulting children, in one of the most notorious pedophilia rings in the country’s history.
Pell, now a top-ranking cardinal in the Catholic Church, has been haunted by the picture with Ridsdale over the past two decades, during which he has been dogged by claims that he covered up reports of sexual assault by members of the Australian clergy and abused young boys himself. His critics say the image of him standing at Ridsdale’s side represents a dismissive stance on sex abuse claims — his “coldheartedness” and “contempt,” in the words of one victims advocate.
Now, Pell himself is facing charges. Australian authorities announced Thursday that Pell, who runs the Vatican’s finances, has been charged with “historical sexual assault offenses” stemming from multiple complaints.
Victoria Deputy Police Commissioner Shane Patten did not offer details about the case but said Pell had been notified through a legal representative that he must appear in court on July 18, as The Washington Post has reported.
Pell’s job as the Vatican’s treasurer has been described as one of the most powerful in Rome, second only to the pope. He has been accused of sex abuse on multiple occasions, and authorities confirmed last year he was under investigation, but these are the first criminal charges brought against him.
In a news conference from the Vatican on Thursday, Pell said he was the victim of a “relentless character assassination” that had “strengthened his resolve” to clear his name. He added that he had spoken to Pope Francis and had been granted leave to return to Australia.
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges,” he said. “They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Pell, 76, has been plagued by scandal for decades. In Ballarat, where he served as episcopal vicar for education from 1973 to 1984, untold numbers of children were beaten and sexually assaulted by priests and nuns at the St. Alipius Primary School.
Australian media have documented the abuse extensively. A February 2016 story by the Australian public broadcasting network SBS called the school “a pedophile’s paradise and a child’s nightmare.” Abuse was rampant throughout the parish in the 1970s, according to the Australian newspaper The Age, which once called Ballarat “probably the worst of Australia’s 32 dioceses for sexual abuse.”
After studying in the United Kingdom, Pell in 1971 returned to Ballarat, where he started out as an assistant priest before becoming education vicar. Gerald Ridsdale served as chaplain of St. Alipius in the early 1970s. The men shared a house in the diocese for about two years.