Sydney – Australia’s top Catholic cleric George Pell apologised to a child sexual abuse victim on Thursday, saying the church’s defence of a case he brought could be seen as morally wrong, even if it was legally correct.
Cardinal Pell, recently appointed by Pope Francis to head a new Vatican finance ministry, was giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia.
Wrapping up his testimony, he apologised to former altar boy John Ellis, who was abused by a priest from the age of 13.
Ellis sued the church seeking compensation from the Archdiocese of Sydney, at the time headed by Pell, but lost his case.
Pell said it was legally proper to defend the case, even though he did not deny that Ellis, now an adult, suffered at the hands of paedophile priest Aidan Duggan, who is now deceased.
“I never at any stage contemplated doing anything improper and I don’t believe that our lawyers ever suggested anything that was legally improper,” Pell said.
He conceded, however, that taking such a hard-line stance against an abuse victim could be seen as a moral failure and apologised to Ellis.
“As former archbishop and speaking personally, I would want to say to Mr Ellis that we failed in many ways, some inadvertently, in our moral and pastoral responsibilities to him,” Pell said in the apology.
“I want to acknowledge his suffering and the impact of this terrible affair on his life. As the then Archbishop, I have to take ultimate responsibility, and this I do.”
The national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is under way after a decade of growing pressure to investigate widespread allegations of paedophilia.
Its hearings are covering harrowing allegations of child abuse involving places of worship, orphanages, community groups and schools.
Pell, who is not accused of any sexual abuse, said earlier this week that mistakes were “made by me and others in the Church that resulted in driving Mr Ellis and the Archdiocese apart rather than bringing healing”.
The royal commission follows an Australian state inquiry into the handling of child sex cases by the Catholic Church last year which found that religious leaders trivialised the problem of child sex abuse.
Last month Pope Francis handed Pell, formerly Archbishop of Sydney, a posting which makes him one of the most important men in the Catholic Church.
As such Pell is charged with helping overhaul the much-criticised central administration following a wave of scandals, including allegations of waste, corruption and even money-laundering.