A senior Vatican official, who is also Australia’s highest ranking cleric, has been accused of attempting to bribe a victim of child sex abuse to keep quiet about the molestation he suffered from a paedophile Catholic priest.
The victim, David Ridsdale, told an Australian royal commission into child sexual abuse that he called Cardinal George Pell in 1993 to report being abused by his uncle Gerald Ridsdale, a former priest who is in prison after committing more than 130 offences against children as young as four between the 1960s and 1980s.
David Ridsdale said Pell had a “terse” response to being told of the abuse, before offering him money to buy his silence.
“George then began to talk about my growing family and my need to take care of their needs,” Ridsdale told the royal commission hearing. “He mentioned how I would soon have to buy a car or house for my family.
“I remember with clarity the last three lines we spoke together. Me: Excuse me, George, what the fuck are you talking about? George: I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet. Me: Fuck you, George, and everything you stand for.”
Ridsdale, now 48, said he called his sister after the conversation with Pell and told her “the bastard tried to bribe me”.
“Some days, I don’t know who I am angrier at, Gerald for being a sick monster, or George for the way he reacted and dealt with the issue,” Ridsdale said. “Catholic clergy are meant to be the moral leaders of our society, but after my reactions from George and the Catholic church I have zero respect for him and the institution.”
The evidence was heard on the second day of public hearings in Ballarat for the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Ballarat is a Victorian city about 62 miles (100km) north-west of Melbourne. The commission has held 27 hearings across Australia into the response of the Catholic church and other institutions to child sexual abuse.
Justice Peter McClellan, chair of the royal commission, said that Pell would be asked to answer the serious questions raised by the evidence. Peter Gray SC, representing the Catholic church’s witnesses, said Pell had a different recollection of the conversation.
In a statement, Pell said he was “extremely sympathetic” to David Ridsdale but said the abuse victim was confused about the conversation in question.
“I continue to regret the misunderstanding between us. At no time did I attempt to bribe David Ridsdale or his family or offer any financial inducements for him to be silent. At the time of our discussion the police were already aware of allegations against Gerald Ridsdale and were investigating. Then, and now, I supported these police investigations. I have previously made a sworn denial of these allegations and I reiterate that denial,” he said.
The cardinal said he was committed to complete cooperation with the royal commission and was “horrified once again” by survivors’ accounts of abuse. “The suicide of so many victims is an enormous tragedy. The crimes committed against them by priests and brothers are profoundly evil and completely repugnant to me,” he said.
Pell vehemently denied having moved Gerald Ridsdale out of a parish and said he never would have condoned or participated in any decision to move the priest in the knowledge he had abused children.
But Peter Saunders, a British abuse survivor who sits on a Vatican commission charged with helping the church deal with abuse claims, said the testimony against Pell was “deeply, deeply worrying”.
“Cardinal Pell has a dreadful reputation with survivors in Sydney,” Saunders told the Guardian, adding that he was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the commission.
Pell was an assistant priest in Ballarat East from 1973 to 1983, a period when several Catholic priests sexually assaulted young boys in the area.
At least a dozen suicides in Ballarat have been directly linked to the abuse, which went unreported by senior Catholic clerics, with some of the offenders moved to different parishes or sent on “treatment” trips to the US or Italy.
Pell went on to become the archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, before moving on to the Vatican in February 2014. His role at the Holy See is prefect of the secretariat for the economy, effectively putting him in charge of the Vatican’s finances. Pell has always denied any knowledge of sexual abuse in the Ballarat area.
However, several child abuse survivors have mentioned Pell in their testimonies, while the minutes of a 1982 meeting show he was involved in a decision to move Gerald Ridsdale from the Mortlake parish, which followed allegations of abuse of boys there.
Timothy Green, 53, told the royal commission that he was sexually assaulted when he was 11 by Brother Edward Dowlan at St Patrick’s college, one of five Catholic institutions in Ballarat being scrutinised by the inquiry.
Green said he told Pell that “Brother Dowlan is touching little boys”, only for Pell to respond by saying “Don’t be ridiculous,” and leaving the room.
“He just dismissed it and walked out,” Green said. “His reaction gave me the impression that he knew about Brother Dowlan, but couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it.”
Green said one of his school friends, who was also abused, later killed himself by “blowing himself up in his car”.
Another victim of abuse, Gordon Hill, 72, described horrific abuse suffered in a Ballarat orphanage. “Sometimes the nuns would punish us by pulling out a tooth with a pair of pliers or hitting one of us in the head with an engineer’s hammer,” he said.
“The nuns threw me in what they called a ‘dungeon’, which was a four by four room away from the orphanage and down by the incinerator. That was where I was left with a bucket, a soundproof door and a light above me. There were no windows. For a bed I had a concrete slab, and three or four hessian bags for a blanket.”
It is not the first time Pell has been asked to clarify his handling of allegations of sexual abuse by priests. He appeared before the royal commission in August 2014 via video link from Rome to provide testimony on the Melbourne Response, a scheme he introduced to the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne in 1996 to investigate sex abuse claims.
Pell was criticised over comments he made during that appearance to counsel assisting, Gail Furness, where he compared sex abuse within the church to a truck driver picking up a female passenger and molesting her while on the job. “I don’t think [in that case] it’s appropriate for the leadership of that company to be held responsible,” Pell said.
The royal commission chair, Justice Peter McClellan, questioned Pell on the comments. “When a priest, through the act of the parish or in any other way, gains access to a child who comes to the church with a parent … that is quite different to the relationship between the truck driver and the casual passenger, isn’t it?” McClellan asked. Pell replied: “Yes, I would certainly concede that.”
The hearings in Ballarat will continue for another two weeks.
So far the royal commission has referred more than 600 matters to police in various states, and another 1,400 people are waiting to be heard in future sessions. The final report will be handed to the federal government by the end of 2017.