Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Quirinale hotel in Rome, Italy Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Cardinal George Pell has been making headlines around the world this week, as he testifed at the Royal Commission into Child Abuse as his role as Cardinal in the Australian Catholic Church.

Who is Cardinal George Pell?

George Pell is Australia’s most senior and the world’s third most powerful Catholic in terms of clergymen in the Vatican, after Pope Francis and the Secretary of State. Seventy four-year-old Pell became an Australian Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church in 2003. One of the main responsibilities of a cardinal in the Catholic Church is to pick a new pope if the pope passes away or abdicates.

Born in Ballarat, Victoria, on June 8, 1941, Pell was ordained as a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Ballarat in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, in December 1966. He rose through the ranks of the Church and in 1996, was installed as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and later Archbishop of Sydney in 2001.

Pell has over the last two decades maintained a relatively high public profile, and has spoken out about a range of controversial issues, from Australia’s asylum seeker policies, to the War on Iraq and climate change.

While Pell was eighth Archbishop of Sydney and later Cardinal between 2001 and 2014, he oversaw sexual abuse allegations that were made against 55 priests in the Sydney Archdiocese, such as the case of John Ellis, an altar boy at Christ the King Catholic Church at Bass Hill, who was sexually abused by Father Aidan Duggan between 1974 to 1979.

The claims have resulted in just under $8 million in reparation payments, according to The Daily Telegraph.

Cardinal George Pell is now testifying to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to answer questions about his time from 1973 to 1994 as a priest in Ballarat East Parish. His testimony on the strong evidence of sexual abuse of children in the Australian Catholic church was first heard on February 29, and has been ongoing for the last four days.

Pell and ongoing Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse

The Royal Commission has allowed Cardinal Pell to testify via video-link from Rome as he could not travel to Australia because of his health. The inquiry, carried out by Gail Furness, SC, focuses on Pell’s knowledge of and failure to protect victims of child sexual abuse within the Church.

Since day one of the questioning, Pell has been accused of “dodging direct questions” but he has also admitted to a number of mistakes made by the Church.

Day one summary: February 29, 2016

On the first day of the inquiry, Pell admitted that the Catholic Church had “mucked up” and said he felt deep regret for the victims of sexual abuse.

The Daily Telegraph noted that Pell also finally conceded that the church had failed to protect children, and that the Catholic Church had been put above the welfare of children in its care.

The Cardinal also told the Commission that in reference to the rumours of sexual abuse, “if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial”.

Pell also said he knew about a priest who had openly kissed school children in a classroom, and that it was not uncommon for a priest to swim naked with his students, according to The Daily Telegraph.

During the hearing, the cardinal admitted that he frequently heard about paedophilia in the church back in the early 1970s.

Day two, three summary: March 1-2, 2016

Pell stated that he had known nothing about priests who committed crimes of sexual abuse, and when asked about the "common knowledge" about sexual abuse complaints, particularly to do with convicted paedophile priest Gerald Francis Ridsdale, within the church, Pell told the Royal Commission that he "could not say that [he] ever knew that everyone knew".

"I didn't know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn't," he added. "It's a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me."

When prompted, Cardinal Pell said he regretted the suffering experienced by victims, but that he had "no reason to turn [his] mind to the extent of the evils that Risdale had perpetrated".

On the second day, the Cardinal also admitted that he “should have done more” with regards to Ridsdale, who was convicted of child sexual abuse and indecently assaulting a large number of children between 1993 and 2013.

While Pell was an assistant priest in Ballarat, Victoria, in a school called St Alipius’ Parish, he had shared a house with Risdale, then the school’s chaplain, in 1973. During this time, Ridsdale was found to have sexually abused and indecently assault 54 children, some as young as four, for over 30 years.

According to The Age, Ridsdale’s nephew David Ridsdale was also a victim of his uncle’s sexual abuse from the age of 11. David Ridsdale has accused Pell of attempting to bribe him to prevent allegations being made public back in 1993. However, the cardinal has denied these claims.

However, The Guardian reports Pell admitted during the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Organisations in May 2013 that his church had covered up sexual abuse, and that his predecessor had destroyed the records. Moreover, the church had moved paedophile priests from parish to parish.

Although Pell lived with Ridsdale during the time, the Cardinal insists that he was unaware of the crimes committed by Ridsdale, as well as Father Searson’s sex abuse. Searson was a Melbourne priest who was convicted of physical assault in 1997, although a 2014 ABC report revealed that the Church had known about his crimes.

Justice Peter McClellan, a commissioner for the inquiry, warned Pell that he may be found culpable if it was found he knew about the ongoing child sex abuse.

Pell had also agreed to meet abuse survivors after the completion of the Commission, but victims turned down his offer after being asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.


A gofundme campaign in early February called “Send Ballarat Survivors to Rome” allowed the victims of sexual abuse to fly to Rome and witness Pell give evidence.

However, the victims have said they would be flying home Friday, and have put in a request to meet with the Pope.

During the second day of the commission, a man named Anthony Frost confronted Pell outside the hearings. In the 1980s, his daughters Katie and Emma were raped by priest Father Kevin O’Donnell from Melbourne.

The ABC reported that Katie became physically and mentally disabled after she was hit by a drunk driver in 1999, and became a binge drinker after the abuse.

The publication also noted that Emma overdosed on medication and passed away at the age of 26, after years of suffering from eating disorders, drug addiction and self harm following the abuse.

“[Cardinal Pell] held my hand for the whole duration of the chat that we had and I expressed to him that he was holding the hand of a broken man, and he put his other hand on me and tried to I suppose connect in some way, but I didn’t feel it,” Foster told the ABC.

Public reception and social media

SC Furness has, during the inquiry, slammed Pell for giving an “implausible” testimony, particularly with regards to his claims that he was not “briefed properly or adequately by the Catholic Education Office” and “the reasons for that”.

But a lot of the public -- and much of the media -- also remain dubious about Pell’s testimony.

Australian comedian and musician Tim Minchin also wrote and recorded a track, entitled “Come Home (Cardinal Pell),” which called Pell a “scum”. The song reached number one on the Australian iTunes song chart, and all profits went to the gofundme campaign for the Ballarat victims.

However, there is at least one person who believes Pell has been unfairly under attack. Miranda Devine, a columnist with the Telegraph, wrote in a piece titled “Pell punished for trying to aid victims”, that Pell had been made the “whipping boy”:

“...This is the profound unfairness of the attacks on Pell. He alone of any church leader in Australia responded to the crisis of child sexual abuse and set up a system in which claims would be investigated, counselling and compensation offered and victims would be directed to police.”

The case is ongoing.