Vatican downplays commission member's remarks about Cardinal Pell

by Joshua J. McElwee

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The Vatican's main spokesman has downplayed comments made about Australian Cardinal George Pell by a member of Pope Francis' commission on clergy sexual abuse, saying the member was speaking in his own name and not in the authority of the commission.

Commission member Peter Saunders, an English survivor of clergy sexual abuse, said in an Australian television interview Sunday that Pell had had an "almost sociopathic" disregard for abuse victims.

Responding to Saunders' interview, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said in a statement Monday that Saunders was speaking in his own name. The papal commission on clergy sexual abuse, Lombardi said in the statement, "does not have the task of investigating and pronouncing specific judgment on single cases."

The Vatican spokesman also referred journalists to Pell's own statements on the matter, saying those "must be considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention."

Saunders serves as one of 17 members of the papal commission, which is formally known as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. He made his comments about Pell on Sunday on the popular television program "60 Minutes," the Australian version of the U.S. newsmagazine broadcast.

In his interview, Saunders said he thought Pell's position as the head of a new office at the Vatican consolidating control of the city-state's financial matters was "untenable."

"I personally think his position is untenable, because he has now a catalog of denials, he has a catalog of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness, [he is] almost sociopathic I would go so far as to say," Saunders said.

"My personal opinion is that he is making a mockery of the papal commission, of the pope himself, but most of all, of victims and survivors," Saunders continued.

Pell, who served as the archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2014, was appointed by Francis to lead the Vatican's new Secretariat for the Economy last year.

The cardinal issued a statement calling Saunders' remarks "false and misleading," saying that he was consulting with lawyers about how to respond. That statement also said the cardinal "has repeated many times his deepest sympathy for the victims of abuse and their families."

Saunders' comments were made in the context of the proceedings of Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which this month has been investigating the response of Catholic church authorities to sexual abuse in the southeastern Australian town of Ballarat. That city is where Pell was born and where he served as a parish priest and diocesan vicar before first becoming a bishop in 1987.

A witness at the first hearing of the commission alleged that as a priest, Pell had bribed the witness in the 1980s to remain silent about sexual abuse. Pell has denied that claim.

The commission issued a statement Monday saying Pell had been asked to testify on the matter at its second hearing on the issue, expected to be held later this year.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.] 

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