Pell calls for the facts, not fiction

Small blessings. At last, it's not all about the Catholic Church. This royal commission, says Cardinal George Pell, is ''an opportunity to clear the air, to separate fact from fiction … We object to being described as the only cab on the rank.''

It was a crowded rank indeed when Cardinal Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney, faced media on Tuesday at the Catholic Church's city headquarters in Polding House.

The air might have benefited from some clearing as Cardinal Pell castigated the press for smearing and scapegoating the church with exaggerations and generalisations. The church acknowledged its shame, he said. But when it came to the ''percentages'' of abuse, the church was far from the only culprit - and the commission would establish that.

Cardinal Pell agreed he would likely be called before the inquiry - ''I should hope so'' - to answer past claims that he personally covered up for abusing priests, allegations that he has consistently denied.

He then got the kind of grilling he might expect at the commission.

Hadn't victims been paid compensation to shut them up, to block legal action? ''I've never been involved in a case where people have been offered money so they wouldn't go through the courts.''


Had his approach to potential victims been coloured by the false claims 10 years ago - ''proven to be lies'', the reporter added - that he had molested a 12-year-old? ''We didn't make any change in procedures due to that. I am sensitive to the justice of every person involved.''

Cardinal Pell had accompanied a confessed paedophile to court in 1993, said 7.30's Leigh Sales. This, he replied, had been an ''act of priestly solidarity'' for Father Gerald Ridsdale. His lawyer had asked him to attend but he had said he would not dispute the allegations.

''I would only say Ridsdale had done other good things.'' He was not aware of the extent of Ridsdale's crimes at the time.

Ridsdale's nephew had told Cardinal Pell his uncle abused him and he accused the archbishop of offering him hush money. ''No, I certainly didn't offer his nephew hush money. I'd known the lad. I was entirely sympathetic. I never had any intention of trying to shut him up.''

What about Father F, another paedophile who had confessed to three priests? Cardinal Pell had defended the priests who failed to tell police. Or the case that landed in court on Monday of 59-year-old Brother Martin Harmata, who is accused, with another teacher, of abuses at a western Sydney college in the 1980s? Lateline's Emma Alberici noted that the brother still featured on his order's website as a ''community leader''.

Could Cardinal Pell understand that such a collection of cases might create ''widespread public cynicism'' that the church is doing enough? ''I don't think there is a widespread public cynicism. There is certainly a cynicism in elements of the press. I think the general public certainly understands we're serious about this.''

Cardinal Pell waved a brochure, Sexual Abuse - The Response of the Archdiocese of Sydney. Since 1997, it had followed the strict protocols of Towards Healing. ''No victims are silenced,'' it says. ''It is completely prohibited to shift priests who have been charged - to shift them around,'' he said.

''We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church. We object to it being exaggerated. We object to being described as the only cab on the rank.''

What of the protocol for priests who might confess abuse to another priest? ''If that is done outside the confessional …'' Cardinal Pell began. No, if it's inside the confessional? '' … the seal of confession is inviolate.'' So, if a priest confesses to a crime … ''The seal of confession is inviolate.''

Cardinal Pell was ''grateful'' when the Prime Minister assured him the royal commission would cover every corner of society, not exclusively the Catholic Church. Despite a ''press campaign focused largely on us, it does not mean we are the principal culprit''.

''I would welcome the release of statistics … showing the number of cases that police are dealing with; how many of them might involve Catholic teachers, priests or brothers; how many are historical incidents; how many are happening today. And I'm interested in asking whether police have the resources to deal with the day-to-day problems rather than - as well as - the historical problems.''

He worries about raking over so much history, whether police have the resources for it, and whether it is good for the victims.

''To what extent are victims helped by a continuing furore in the press over these allegations … to what extent are wounds simply opened by the rerunning of events which have been reported not only once but many times previously?''

We are about to find out.