Cardinal George Pell, one of the highest-ranking officials at the Vatican, has admitted to an Australian government commission that when a schoolboy came to him decades ago to report that a Catholic teacher was "misbehaving with boys" he did not report the matter to authorities.
Pell, who served as the leader of two Australia archdioceses before becoming the head of Pope Francis' new centralized Vatican treasury department two years ago, said that when the boy came to him in 1974 "he just mentioned it casually in conversation; he never asked me to do anything."
The boy, the cardinal said, was complaining about a member of the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers named Edward Dowlan, who would later be convicted of abusing at least 20 boys at six Australian schools starting in 1971.
Pell told the Australian Royal Commission via video testimony from Rome late Wednesday night Rome time that the child came to him to say "something like 'Dowlan is misbehaving with boys.'"
Commission Chair Peter McClellan asked the cardinal whether he should have done more to report the event, and possibly put an end to the abuse.
"With the experience of forty years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more," replied Pell.
"I didn't do anything about it," he continued. "I eventually inquired with the school chaplain." The cardinal said he thought Dowlan's order would handle the complaint.
"I had no idea that the Christian Brothers were covering up in the way in which it's now apparent," said Pell.
The cardinal has been testifying to Australia's Royal Commission Into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse via video link from Rome during the overnight hours for the past four days.
Pell's admission in the Dowlan case Wednesday night is potentially explosive.
Lawyers for the commission and abuse victims have been presenting evidence that the cardinal held key positions of authority in several Australian dioceses starting from the mid-1970s, with the potential power to stop abusive clergy, but had yet to prove the cardinal knew firsthand of such abuse.
It is also the first known time that a Vatican official of such authority has admitted historic inaction in the face of possible sexual abuse. Pell is a close advisor to Francis, serving on the pope's advisory Council of Cardinals and as the prefect for the Vatican's new Secretariat for the Economy.
Following Pell's admission, a lawyer representing abuse survivors pressed him firmly on the matter.
"Why on earth, Cardinal, didn't you take the information that you had about the complaint ... to the police, to the investigators, to the insurance companies, or to the Christian Brothers themselves?" asked the counsel. "Why do we hear about it this week for the first time?"
"I mentioned it to the principal and he said the matter was being looked after," replied the cardinal. "Now in the light of subsequent events that was radically insufficient but at that time ... given the unspecified nature of the accusations, I thought that was something that was fair enough."
The lawyer responded: "Dowlan went onto sexually abuse children in a teaching capacity all the way through to 1985, dozens of them. Do you understand that?"
"I do," said Pell.
"You could have done something which would have put a stop to that potentially, couldn't you?" asked the counsel.
"With due respect, I think that's a vast overstatement," the cardinal replied. "I did take the opportunity to ascertain the reliability of the rumors. I was told there was something in them and that it was being dealt with."
Pell has been being questioned by Australia's Royal Commission via video link from Rome each night since Sunday. Wednesday is expected to be the last night of questioning.
This is the third time that the cardinal has testified before the Royal Commission. Pell, who formerly served as an auxiliary bishop and then archbishop of Melbourne and then archbishop of Sydney, has headed the new Secretariat for the Economy since 2014.
The Commission had asked Pell to come to Australia for the latest hearing, but the cardinal said he had become too frail at age 74 to make the some 20-hour flight.
Pell was also questioned Wednesday about the fact that he met Francis Monday morning, just hours after the conclusion of the first night's testimony. He was asked if he had discussed the hearings with the pontiff.
The cardinal said he had not discussed the hearings, but has arranged for both Francis and the Vatican's Secretariat of State to receive daily briefings of each of the night's testimonies.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]