During the May 31 broadcast of Australia’s 60 Minutes, a member of Pope Francis’s sexual-abuse commission described Cardinal George Pell’s treatment of victims as “almost sociopathic.” The 60 Minutes segment focused on Pell’s response to abuse allegations while he ministered in Australia, including testimony alleging that the cardinal tried to buy a victim’s silence, and that he was involved in the decision to move the nation’s most notorious abuser priest, Gerald Ridsdale, between parishes—claims the cardinal denies. Pell, former archbishop of Sydney, was criticized for appearing with Ridsdale at his first trial in 1993 (Ridsdale was eventually convicted of more than one hundred counts of assault). The cardinal has a “catalogue of denials…a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness,” according to Peter Saunders, selected by Francis to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders explained that he based his judgments on conversations with Australian victims. The cardinal’s position as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy—the office created by Francis to oversee the Vatican’s finances—is “untenable,” Saunders said. “I would go as far to say,” he continued, “that I consider him to be quite a dangerous individual.”
Responses from Pell and from the Vatican spokesman came quickly. Before the program had even aired (after the network released promotional material), Pell issued statements calling Saunders’s comments “false” and “outrageous”—and suggested he might take legal action. (Saunders defended his remarks on June 1, saying they were “not slanderous.”) While acknowledging “the important work Mr. Saunders has done as a survivor of abuse to assist victims, including the establishment of a victims survivors group in the United Kingdom,” the cardinal suggested that Saunders had overstepped his role as a member of the pope’s sexual-abuse commission. The statutes of that body “make it clear that the Commission's role does not include commenting on individual cases,” according to Pell, “nor does the commission have the capacity to investigate individual cases.”
Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See, made the same point in his June 1 statement. But he went further, stating that Pell’s responses to the Australian government’s investigation of child abuse have “always” been careful and thorough. The cardinal’s recent statements about 60 Minutes “must be considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention,” according to Lombardi. No doubt the cardinal’s statements about his role in the scandal deserve both respect and attention, but have they always been reliable?
In 1982, according to Anthony Jones, he was sexually assaulted by Fr. Terence Goodall twice in one day. Jones was twenty-eight at the time. He says that he complained to church authorities the next day, but that they failed to mention the accusation to Goodall. Two decades later, Jones wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of Sydney detailing the alleged assault. (He was suing for $3.5 million.) The archdiocese launched an internal investigation. And on February 14, 2003, Pell wrote to Jones to tell him two things: that the investigator could not substantiate the allegation, and that there were no other complaints against Goodall—neither of which was true. (In 2005, Goodall would plead guilty to indecent assault, under old statutes that outlawed homosexual sex.)
In fact, as reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2008, the investigator’s report—which of course Pell read—did substantiate Jones’s allegation, along with another man’s accusation that Goodall had molested him when he was an altar boy. Pell wrote a letter to the other victim to inform him that his accusation had been substantiated—on the same day he wrote to Jones denying his claim. What’s more, documents obtained by ABC show church investigators were aware of several accusations against Goodall. Pell later admitted that his letter to Jones was “poorly put,” explaining that he had confused Jones’s allegation of assault with rape. “I was attempting to inform him that there was no other allegation of rape,” he said. But in another letter to Jones, also reported by ABC, Pell expanded on his reason for refusing to substantiate the allegation. “What cannot be determined by me, however, is whether it was a matter of sexual assault as you state, or homosexual behavior between two consenting adults as maintained by Fr. Goodall,” Pell wrote. “In the end it is a matter of your word against his.” Yet a police wiretap revealed that Goodall admitted to Jones that he never told the church investigator that their encounters were consensual. “I certainly did not say it was consensual, I don’t know where they got that from,” Goodall said.
“I acted to the best of my knowledge,” Pell told ABC when presented with news of the recording. “My judgment was vindicated when the prosecutors never alleged rape.” The cardinal acknowledged that he had met with Goodall to discuss the case. “I'm the superior of the priest,” he explained. “I’ve always got to be open to speak with the priest, especially if I’m telling him that it’s likely his time as a priest is over.” But he did not meet with Jones. He only sent him those two letters that misstated the findings of the investigation he had commissioned. “I don't know who was lying,” Pell conceded, Goodall or Jones. “It’s very, very difficult to find out the truth in these situations.”