Cardinal George Pell says he grieves for Ballarat and prays daily for victims whose lives have been shattered by the Catholic Church's scourge of sexual abuse.
In a bid to try and set the record straight in his hometown, Australia's most senior cleric spoke directly with Fairfax Media's Ballarat Courier in Rome on Saturday. After numerous requests for an interview, the Cardinal phoned from a car on his way to a religious retreat outside of Rome.
George Pell: meeting victims was 'very emotional'
Cardinal Pell admits he is "a bit buttoned up", but tells Andrew Bolt meeting sexual abuse victims and reconciling with David Ridsdale "was deeply moving".
He accepted some victims may never be healed and others would never be willing to accept any help from an institution that failed to protect them.
During the rare interview, the Cardinal refused to answer questions relating directly to church's handling of child sexual abuse allegations inflicted on children by clergy he work alongside for years.
"I spent nineteen and half hours refusing to defend the indefensible, I am not about to try and do that again," he said. "The Catholic Church has made enormous mistakes and I accept that."
But he pledged to help those wounded by the scourge of sexual abuse and push to end Ballarat's hidden death toll made up of suicides and premature deaths of so many abused whose pain was too much to bear.
His words come in the wake of what he described as an "honest, hard and emotional" meeting he held with a group of clergy sexual abuse victims who had travelled 16,000 kilometres to bear witness to his evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Rome.
In the moments after the meeting, the Cardinal fronted a global media frenzy. Reading from a handwritten statement, he vowed to commit himself to working to stop the suicides of those still suffering in Ballarat.
Cardinal Pell told The Ballarat Courier his understanding of the particulars of a healing centre in Ballarat proposed by sex abuse victims was limited but he was prepared to do whatever he could to help, guided by the vision of survivors.
He also rejected public perceptions he lacked empathy or was indifferent to the plight of sex abuse victims and their families left broken by the abhorrent abuse inflicted on generations of children by paedophile priests circulating Ballarat for decades.
"I have never lacked any compassion for victims, sometimes, unfortunately I have failed to express myself adequately," the Cardinal said.
"I find it difficult to express my emotions, that is the way I am. Sometimes when the cover of a book is dull or boring, it doesn't mean the contents inside are like that."
Last week, the Cardinal was accused by the Commission of "designing" his evidence to deflect blame onto other senior figures who he said deliberately "deceived" him by keeping him in the dark about the extent of child sex crimes in the Catholic Church.
When questioned by The Courier on whether he accepted some victims would find it difficult to ever believe his evidence, the Cardinal said he'd been honest.
"I was completely truthful in my evidence," he said. "Among the delegation of victims I met, nobody said that I told lies at the Royal Commission.
However, several of survivors who had travelled to Rome from Australia refused to meet the Cardinal after he gave evidence to the sex abuse inquiry saying they had completely lost faith in him.
Among them was clergy abuse victim Paul Levey who was raped daily when he was 14 and living with notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale in Mortlake in 1982.
Mr Levey's harrowing ordeal was at the centre of Cardinal Pell's third night of evidence. Mr Levey said it was "common knowledge" in the Mortlake community and among clergy he was living with Ridsdale and he found in unfathomable Cardinal Pell was unaware he was living there and had failed to intervene.
Cardinal Pell told The Courier he had reconciled with clergy abuse survivor and vocal critic of the church David Ridsdale at the meeting on Thursday. He described their exchange as "deeply moving".
Mr Ridsdale maintains he told Cardinal Pell his uncle was abusing him and the senior Catholic asked him what it would take to keep quiet.
While Cardinal Pell vehemently denies that he ever tried to silence Mr Ridsdale, he told The Courier how the misunderstanding played out publicly was one of his biggest regrets.
"I share the vision that David and the other victims have for Ballarat," Cardinal Pell said. "He (David) would like to see Ballarat become a well-known centre for help and healing, rather than a place known for being one of the worst places for paedophilia in the world. He wants to work with people, those who may be at risk of attempting suicide to be effectively helped. Although I live on the other side of the world, I am willing to listen and do whatever I can to help him achieve this goal."
Phil Nagle was among a group of child abuse survivors who requested a separate private meeting with the Cardinal to discuss the abuse he suffered at the hands of disgraced paedophile priest Stephen Farrell when he was a grade five pupil.
He told the Cardinal of the devastating ripple effects the sex crimes had on his classmates.
He travelled to Rome to honour his 12 fellow St Alipius Christian Brothers Primary School pupils who have committed suicide or died prematurely - out of a class of 33. "Some have drunk themselves to death, some have driven cars into poles," Mr Nagle said in Rome last week. "I'm here as their voice and I know the other survivors are here for their mates, as their voice. They've made the journey for the people they know who can't speak for themselves."
Mr Nagle said Cardinal Pell had discussed ways in which the Catholic Church could do more to help survivors of child abuse. "We talked about counselling, we talked about care, we talked about what the future's going to be for our survivors and how the Church is going to help with that from George's level down."
Cardinal Pell said he had been distressed to hear the stories of the broken men and parents grieving for the children they had lost. "It is always awful to hear about the suffering of people, especially when the suffering is of those whose family you know," Cardinal Pell said. "A number of the survivors were people I know, or families I knew personally. We are all Ballarat people. It was deeply distressing and deeply moving for me to hear their stories."
"I'm very proud of my Ballarat link and I don't want anyone to think 20, 30, 40 years down the track simply of the evil deeds of a few committed there. Over the years there have been many hundreds of good and beautiful people, many who dedicated their lives to the church or to the people of Ballarat."
Some of Australia's most notorious paedophile priests and Christian Brothers, including Gerald Ridsdale and Edward Dowlan, were part of a paedophile ring operating in and around Ballarat during the 1960s,70s and 80s. Ridsdale alone sexually abused hundreds of victims. He was shifted from parish to parish enabling his sex crime spree to span decades.
The true horror he inflicted may never be known. He has been convicted of 138 sex crimes against children.
Some were as young as four when they were abused.
Cardinal Pell maintains he did not know of Ridsdale's abusing until he was eventually charged in the early 90s. Cardinal Pell told the Commission that abuse by Catholic clergy was "on the radar" in the 1970s due to offending by Monsignor John Day, who died in 1978.
But he said he failed to recognise widespread offending when he was a junior priest in Ballarat, despite gossip that Christian Brothers there were assaulting children. He also told the sex abuse inquiry last week he deeply regretted walking Ridsdale to court in 1993 and did so out of a sense of Christian duty.
Cardinal Pell said it was now his priority to help bring peace and healing to his hometown left reeling.
"I grieve for the history, for my own city, I pray every day for the people suffering," he said.
"I follow the situation in Ballarat closely and I am willing to listen and cooperate in any way I can."
The Cardinal promised to help the group work with agencies in Rome set up to protect minors in the church, and to work with them to investigate the feasibility of a research centre in Ballarat to establish practical help for those still suffering.