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Cardinal George Pell has to resign, or Pope Francis must act

If Pope Francis wants to retain his reputation as the people's Pope he must force Cardinal George Pell to either resign or retire.

Cardinal George Pell has to resign. Before the week is out, and on the back of his evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the cardinal must go, and Pope Francis must be involved.

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If not, the Catholic Church in Australia is going to bleed numbers indefinitely. The Pope's statements about child sexual abuse will be seen as nothing but more words from a church whose standing has been trashed on the issue, and shockingly so over the past three days.

Pell has no credibility as a moral leader. Pope Francis' reputation as the people's Pope – champion of the poor and powerless – is damaged by association if he fails to act decisively, and immediately.

Pell was appalling in the witness box. Watching him give evidence felt almost ghoulish at times, like standing across the road from a car crash. How can any thinking, feeling, responsive – Christian for heaven's sake – human being respond the way Pell did, when questioned about Doveton priest Peter Searson's horrifying behaviour with children?

Asked about a report of Searson stabbing a bird to death with a screwdriver in front of children, Pell conceded it came to his attention but "I don't know whether the bird was already dead but at some stage I certainly was informed of this bizarre happening".

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Counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness, picked up on the bleeding obvious – did it matter if the bird was dead? Wasn't the point that a priest, supposedly one of God's representatives on earth, had stabbed a bird? In front of children? If you were in a position of authority in the diocese at that time, wouldn't you have made it your business to find out if the priest should have been responsible for anyone, let alone children?

Apparently not. As Pell said about another shocking allegation involving Searson – that he held a knife to a young girl and said "If you move this will go through you" – there was nothing to be done once the girl's parents said they were unwilling to have police investigate, so the church did nothing.

How can anyone in the Catholic Church, from Pope Francis down, think it reasonable that Pell should finish his third day of evidence with the following exchange and, more importantly, remain in a position of moral leadership?

Furness asked Pell if there was anything he did as auxiliary bishop, dealing with child sexual abuse allegations, that he considered wanting or deficient in any way.

Apart from regret for being incurious about paedophile clerics who resigned, supposedly for ill health, Pell replied "I don't believe there is."

Pope Francis must force Pell to resign or retire early. The Pope must also meet with the Ballarat survivors in Rome on Friday before they return to Australia, and Victorian couple Chrissie and Anthony Foster, whose two daughters were raped by a priest.

A meeting with Pell, the man who thinks he did little wrong apart from being deceived by others within the church, would not only be a waste of time for survivors but add a layer of hypocrisy to what Royal Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan has quite rightly called a tragedy.

Pope Francis is the one person who can do for survivors of child sexual abuse what no one else can do – change canon law so that all Catholic clergy around the world must report allegations of child sexual abuse to police and authorities, which is something he has so far refused to do.

As Pell told the commission, they all answer to the Pope.

Joanne McCarthy is a journalist at the Newcastle Herald. She won the Gold Walkley in 2013 for her reporting on child sexual abuse.

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