Rome — One of the Catholic church's highest ranking cardinals, Vatican official George Pell, faced four hours of questioning about his role in the clergy sexual abuse crisis in his native Australia in an extraordinary overnight hearing Sunday, in which he admitted the church "has made enormous mistakes" in its handling of dangerous priests.
The cardinal, who has been among Pope Francis' closest advisors in reforming the Vatican and now leads the city-state's new centralized treasury department, also said that evidence of abuse brought forward by victims in past decades "were dismissed in absolutely scandalous circumstances."
Pell, who formerly served as an auxiliary bishop and then archbishop of Melbourne and then archbishop of Sydney, was testifying via video-link from Rome in the hours between Sunday and Monday in a hearing taking place in his home country on the church's historic response to clergy sexual abuse.
For the 270 minutes between 10:00 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. in Rome, Gail Furness, the lead counsel assisting Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, led Pell through years of the church's response to sexual abuse, fact by fact.
The questioning laid plain the chilling theme familiar to many who have followed the continuing abuse crisis: Repeated historic reports of molestation by young victims that were then mishandled, covered-up, or swept aside. Abusive clergy were sent for treatment, or moved to parishes hundreds of miles away.
In the opening moments of the video testimony, held in a posh Rome hotel just a short drive from the Vatican with dozens of Australian survivors in attendance, Furness asked the cardinal about the wider church's response to the crisis over decades.
"There appears to be a consistency ... in respect of the response of the Catholic church to allegations, and that consistency seems to be in relation to those in more senior positions not taking the action that a reasonable person thought should be taken in respect of those allegations," said the counsel, asking Pell: "Now, are you familiar with that?"
"I'm not here to defend the indefensible," the cardinal replied. "The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the church in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has made -- let people down."
"I'm not here to defend the indefensible," he repeated.
The cardinal then claimed that problems in the church's historic response to sexual abuse were not structural, but having to do with individual persons and how they handled abuse reports.
"I don't think it calls into question the divine structure of the church, which goes back to the New Testament, the role of the pope and bishops," said Pell. "I think the faults overwhelmingly have been more personal faults, personal failures, rather than structures."
The questioning then went on, focusing much more on individual cases of abuse by clergy in Australia in the 1970s and '80s, when Pell served as the episcopal vicar for education in the country's southeastern Ballarat diocese under then-Bishop Ronald Mulkearns.
At one point, the cardinal said he had recently reviewed the case files of one of the most notorious priest abusers from that time: Gerald Ridsdale, who is accused of misconduct by at least 54 children.
"The way he was dealt with was a catastrophe, a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the church," said Pell. "If effective action had been taken earlier, an enormous amount of suffering would have been avoided."
The cardinal said that Mulkearns "gave [Ridsdale] chance after chance after chance, shifted him around, and initially at least trusted excessively in the possible benefits of psychological help."
Pell then also admitted that he had mistakes in not believing victims who reported abuse at that time.
"I must say, in those days, if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial," said the cardinal.
This is the third time that Pell has testified before the Royal Commission. Since 2014, the cardinal has headed the newly created Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.
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.
Furness said at the beginning of the questioning Sunday night that the Commission, launched by the Australian government in January 2013, agreed to the video testimony partly because it had no power to compel the cardinal to make the trip.
Sitting in the front row at Rome's Hotel Quirinale for the event were dozens of clergy abuse survivors who had flown from Australia to be present to see Pell testify. One of the survivors was Ridsdale's nephew, who has claimed in the past that Pell offered him a bribe in the 1990s to be quiet about abuse he suffered by his priest-uncle.
The cardinal has denied that he ever offered such a bribe.
"This is not just a problem in Ballarat or in Australia," David Ridsdale told press at the hotel before the hearing. "This is a systemic problem throughout all the world."
"Help us heal the future," he asked members of the media. "We don't need any more victims in 50 years. We need to be the last of the survivors."
Pell arrived to testify promptly at 10:00 pm Sunday, and was sworn in, hand on the bible, just minutes later. Throughout the questioning, the cardinal answered inquiries calmly and kindly, frequently offering additional information to give context to events.
The Vatican official also frequently cautioned his statements with careful words such as "I think" or "I remember" about happenings from forty years ago, saying at one point that his memory "might be playing me false" and that he does not possess "perfect recall."
However, when asked several times if he had been told about specific allegations of abuse against clergy in the 1970s, Pell repeatedly responded with a firm "No."
About 150 people attended Sunday night's hearing in Rome, where Pell sat alone at a small table in the corner of a large hotel ballroom, testifying to a camera set up with a television screen. Security was extraordinarily tight, with Italian, Australian and Vatican officers scanning the crowd, and frisking everyone who entered the room.
Pell is expected testify via video link from Rome for the Royal Commission sitting in Sydney for at least three more nights.