Australian sex abuse victims await cardinal's testimony

ROME -- Australians who were raped and molested by Catholic priests when they were children are hoping to learn the truth about what a top Vatican cardinal knew about their attackers when he testifies Sunday night before an investigative commission at a Rome hotel.

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Thanks in part to a crowd-funding campaign, about two dozen Australian sex abuse survivors and their companions travelled across the planet to be on hand when Cardinal George Pell testifies via video link before Australia's Royal Commission. It's the third time that the Australian cardinal, Pope Francis' top financial adviser, has testified about the sex abuse scandal, but the current round has generated intense international attention because it is taking place a short walk from the Vatican.

The commission, which is more than half-way through a 435 million Australian dollar ($300 million) government-authorized probe into how all Australian institutions dealt with abuse, agreed to let Pell testify from Rome because he was too ill to travel home. Two weeks ago, it also agreed to let victims be on hand to re-create the type of public hearing that Pell would be facing in Australia.

David Ridsdale, who was abused for four years by his uncle, the notorious pedophile Gerald Ridsdale, said he had done 17 press interviews before Pell's testimony even began -- and was grateful that the horror of what transpired in Ballarat was finally getting known outside of Australia.

The deeply Catholic town in Australia's Victoria state has been devastated by a huge number of abuse victims, scores of whom have killed themselves in a cluster of abuse-related suicides unseen anywhere else.

David Ridsdale said Ballarat's survivors merely want Pell to "stand up and take responsibility on behalf of the church" for what transpired in Pell's own hometown.

"We're here to seek the truth. We're here to heal our city," David Ridsdale said. "We have the highest suicide rate among men in Australia. We have some of the worst drinking and violence problems. And it all stems from that abuse."

The commission's current hearings relate to Ballarat and how the Melbourne archdiocese responded to allegations of abuse, including when Pell served as a Melbourne auxiliary bishop.

Pell, who was born and raised in Ballarat, was ordained a priest there in 1966 and was a consultant to Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who moved Gerald Ridsdale between parishes for years.

During the opening address at a Royal Commission hearing in Ballarat last week, the lawyer assisting the commissioner said that as a consultant, Pell would have been responsible for giving advice to the bishop on the appointments of priests to parishes.

Pell has long denied allegations that he was involved in transferring Gerald Ridsdale -- with whom he once lived at the Ballarat presbytery -- and said he never tried to buy the silence of Ridsdale's nephew, as he alleges. Pell said he had no suspicions that Gerald Ridsdale was a deviant: In fact, when Gerald Ridsdale was finally brought to justice, Pell accompanied him to court.

In a statement Sunday, Pell repeated his support for the Royal Commission's work, vowed to meet individually with victims who had travelled to Rome and said he hoped the coming days "will eventually lead to healing for everyone."

He said he had tied a yellow ribbon on the fence in the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in the Vatican Gardens in a show of solidarity with the "Loud Fence" movement launched in Ballarat to support survivors of abuse.

Pell has defended his response to the abuse scandal while a bishop and later the archbishop of Melbourne, though he has expressed regret over encounters with victims seeking compensation, saying he and others in the church failed in their moral and pastoral responsibilities to them.

Anthony Foster testified at an earlier inquiry that when he and his wife sought compensation over the abuse their daughters suffered, Pell showed a "sociopathic lack of empathy." Their eldest daughter was repeatedly raped by priest Kevin O'Donnell and committed suicide. Her younger sister was raped by the same priest and began binge drinking. One day while intoxicated, she was struck by a car and is now severely disabled.

Foster, who successfully petitioned the Royal Commission to allow survivors to be present for Pell's testimony, said it was "astounding and empowering for victims" that the commission was now sitting in judgment of Pell on a global stage.

"I feel as though we haven't just brought it to Rome. We've brought it to the world," Foster said Sunday. "This is to some extent showing the rest of the world how it can be done."

The Royal Commission, which the government launched in 2012, has no power to file criminal charges. But commissioners can note in their report whether they believe someone has broken the law and refer the matter to police and prosecutors.


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