Saunders accusation highlights need to tighten abuse commission brief

Pope Francis’s advisors will be in a difficult position this morning, following accusations over the weekend by one of his hand-picked abuse commissioners against the man he chose to head up his reform of Vatican finances.

Peter Saunders at the Vatican press office

Peter Saunders at the Vatican press office

Peter Saunders, chief executive of the pioneering UK charity NAPAC (National Association of People Abused in Childhood) was named last December to serve on the Pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors after a meeting with Francis in July 2014 (see CV Comment profile here).

Over the weekend he used an interview with the Australian Channel Nine news program,  60 Minutes, to call for the Pope to remove George Pell, the Australian Cardinal whom in February last year Francis appointed to head the new Secretariat for the Economy, the powerful body created to reform Vatican finances (see CV Comment here).

Saunders told 60 Minutes that Pell should be removed from his position because of allegations he covered up the crimes of abusive priests (the key 15-minute segment is here.) Describing Pell as a “serious obstacle” to Francis’s child protection policies, Saunders says it is “critical” that the cardinal be “moved aside, moved back to Australia”, describing him as “a dangerous individual” who is “almost sociopathic” in his callous, cold-hearted response to victims.

Cardinal Pell

Cardinal Pell

Specifically, Saunders says then-Father George Pell was present at a 1982 meeting with Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns in which it was alleged that a decision was taken to move an abusive priest, Gerald Ridsdale, to another parish. Ridsdale was later revealed to be a serial paedophile, who is in prison after committing more than 130 offences against children as young as four between the 1960s and 1980s.

His nephew, David Ridsdale, claims Pell tried to buy his silence when he reported the abuse to him in 1993. The Cardinal denies this.

The allegations are currently being rehearsed in evidence currently being heard by Australia’s Royal Commission on abuse.

“I think it’s inconceivable that they would not have known [why Ridsdale was being moved],” Saunders told the program, adding that “it seems highly likely that George Pell knew, and if he knew, and if the bishop knew, then these are people who should actually be facing criminal charges now, not just sanctions at the hands of the Pope or the church or the attention of the media.”

Cardinal Pell’s spokesman notes that these conjectures were gone over at the 2013 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, which did not find against the cardinal.

As was pointed out in a recent statement by the Cardinal, he has never condoned or protected offenders, has never condoned or participated in moving known offenders and did not at any time attempt to bribe David Ridsdale, whose story has varied many times over the years.

It is not clear whether Mr Saunders is aware of the Cardinal’s statements or has reviewed the extensive material available from previous Inquiries and appearances at the Royal Commission.

It is also not clear if Mr Saunders is aware Cardinal Pell established within 100 days of being appointed as an Archbishop, an independent scheme to support victims. While there was and is always room for improvement, the Melbourne Response had the explicit support of the Victorian Police and other civil authorities and was at the time warmly welcomed by victim support groups.

The Cardinal has repeated many times his deepest sympathy for the victims of abuse and their families. He has made it clear on several occasions he supports the work of the Royal Commission, where he has already appeared twice, and remains willing to assist in its work.

Given that the accusations have been or are being considered by statutory authorities in Australia, and that so far Cardinal Pell has not been found to have been at fault — although he has apologized many times for the historic failings of the Church — Saunders is expressing an opinion formed by contact with survivors in Australia.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, president of the Commission for Protection of Minors, with Pope Francis

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the Commission for Protection of Minors, with Pope Francis

The problem is that his opinion is not just that of the head of an organization representing victims. The media have sought his view because of his role on the Pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors. And he has ensured maximum publicity by using the strongest language possible.

The vehemence of his opinions obviously reflects his deep feelings. But whether his judgement is correct is another matter — especially in relation to his role on Francis’s Commission.

That Commission was created to advise the Pope on improving guidelines for the Church’s handling of abuse cases. Naturally, the voice and view of victims are key. Yet it was not intended to be a lobby representing the voice of victims in which the Pope would be pressed to intervene in specific cases. Indeed, the commissioners are not supposed to comment on individual cases, but to help formulate Church policies.

If this brief needs clarifying, then now is the time.

Saunders is a Catholic whose mission is to work on behalf of victims to ensure that institutions — including the Church he loves — never again fails to hear their voice. Naturally, he is entitled to his opinion of Cardinal Pell, based on his own information and sources. But he should not be using his position on the Commission to promote those views, using his privileged position to put pressure on the Pope, who is notoriously resistant to such lobbying. Instead, he should be expressing his concerns in private, either to the Pope or his close advisors, and if he is not satisfied with the answers, he is free to resign and explain why.

Cardinal Pell has not been found guilty of anything. Like Juan Barros, the Chilean bishop whom Francis designated as the ordinary of Osorno earlier this year, he has been accused of improper conduct he denies, and like Barros, he is innocent — in both canon and civil law — until it has been otherwise proven.

The Pope will not act unjustly, whatever pressure — whether from the media, or from his own commission — is placed on him.

[UPDATE: see Fr Federico Lombardi’s statements here]

[Austen Ivereigh]

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