Comments Cardinal George Pell made about child sex abuse in the Church in Toronto in 2002 caused a furore. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP
Comments Cardinal George Pell made about child sex abuse in the Church in Toronto in 2002 caused a furore. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Sex abuse comment that haunts Pell

IT WAS 2002 and Cardinal George Pell was ascending the Catholic Church's hierarchy reaching the height of his powers and influence that stretched from Australia all the way to the Vatican and beyond.

But even for a man not known to shy away from a controversial quote or two, what he said in Toronto shocked many.

Pell told devotees abortion was a "worse moral scandal" than sexual abuse in the Church. The comments were so surprising, those in attendance asked him to clarify if that's what he really meant.

In December, Pell was convicted of raping a choirboy in the 1990s and molesting another. Both were 13 years old. The suppression order on reporting the judgement was lifted today. He will be remanded in custody after a pre-sentence hearing on Wednesday and is facing a maximum 50 year jail term.

Pell has maintained his innocence and has said he will appeal the conviction.

Cardinal George Pell was convicted in December. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP
Cardinal George Pell was convicted in December. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

'WORSE MORAL SCANDAL'

Two years into the new millennium, Pell was ensconced as Sydney archbishop and like many senior Catholics was heading to Canada to attend World Youth Day. The semi-regular event, a celebration of young people in the Catholic Church, sees huge numbers of the flock given the opportunity to take part in a mass with the Pope.

In 2008, the event would come to Sydney, hosted by Pell himself.

Six years earlier, at Toronto's World Youth Day, Pell was addressing a group of delegates on a range of issues, Canada's The Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

A Kentucky youth minister has asked Pell how Catholics should react when faced with questions about the sexual abuse crisis that, even then, was enveloping the Church.

Pell replied that: "Abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people."

When asked to clarify his position, Pell dug in saying: "Because (abortion) is always a destruction of human life."

Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.

The comments caused an uproar. At the time Hetty Johnston, who founded the Bravehearts child protection organisation, said Pell's comments were "ghastly, appalling".

"The Church just doesn't understand the seriousness of the whole issue of sexual abuse of children," The Sydney Morning Herald reported her as saying.

"Children's lives are still being sacrificed in the name of the Church's ignorance."

On his return to Australia, Pell insisted he had no wish to downplay sexual abuse in the Church but said other moral issues were getting far less attention.

"I … mentioned that the Church is being attacked for (sex abuse) sometimes by elements that are a bit anti-Christian.

"There are other scandals, such as abortion which are under-reported and because abortion destroys innocent life you could say it's a worse scandal."

Asked by The Sydney Morning Herald what he would say to the families of people who had taken their own lives following sexual abuse, Pell said: "There's not too many of those," and added that it was nonetheless "terrible".

He said he had condemned sexual abuse on numerous occasions.

Then Opposition leader Simon Crean condemned Pell's comments: "Sexual abuse of children is one of the most repugnant and serious of crimes which can never be condoned, excused or reduced in severity by comparison to some other act."

Pope Benedict XVI with Cardinal George Pell at World Youth Day 2008 that was held in Sydney. Picture: Dean Lewins/AAP
Pope Benedict XVI with Cardinal George Pell at World Youth Day 2008 that was held in Sydney. Picture: Dean Lewins/AAP

NOT INTERESTED

It has not been Pell's only ill-advised outburst. The 77-year-old has often found himself criticised for his strident remarks, particularly those that seemingly sought to minimise sexual abuse.

In 2016, when he was giving evidence from Rome to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, he drew gasps from the room when he appeared flippant when discussing serial paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale who at one point, he had lived with.

Despite Pell holding a senior position in the diocese where Ridsdale worked, he seemed uninterested in the allegations against him.

Ridsdale is currently serving a lengthy jail term after being convicted of sexually abusing and indecently assaulting 65 children - some as young as four.

"I don't know whether it was common knowledge or not. It's a sad story but it wasn't of much interest to me," Pell said.

Asked to expand on why he would be uninterested, he said: "The suffering, of course, was real and I very much regret that, but I had no reason to turn my mind to the extent of the evil that Ridsdale had perpetrated."

Between 1993 and 2017 Ridsdale was convicted of a large number of child sexual abuse and indecent assault charges stemming from incidents in the 1960s to 1980s. He is listed as having at least 65 victims.

On one occasion Pell accompanied his friend to court. He later said this was a "mistake".

Convicted paedophile priest gave evidence to the Royal Commission in 2015.
Convicted paedophile priest gave evidence to the Royal Commission in 2015.

COMPARING PRIESTS TO TRUCKERS

In 2014, Pell caused another furore when tried to persuade the royal commission that the Church wasn't culpable for the sex scandals engulfing it any more than a trucking company was for the actions of its staff.

"If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don't think it's appropriate, because it is contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible," he said.

At the time, the Australian Trucking Association chair Noelene Watson said Pell's comments were a "deep insult" to every truck driver.

"These comments are a desperate attempt to deflect attention from the royal commission being faced by the Catholic Church and other institutions that deal with children," she said.

Pell later conceded that there were differences between priest and truckies, given priests are given access to children from trusting parents in a way people in most other industries are not.

 

 

 

 

World Youth Day pilgrims from Australia celebrate as they arrive at Toronto in 2002. Picture: Kevin Frayer/AP
World Youth Day pilgrims from Australia celebrate as they arrive at Toronto in 2002. Picture: Kevin Frayer/AP

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