Australia’s most notorious pedophile priest was a tense and unusual man but not someone Cardinal George Pell came to know well despite sharing a house with him.
“I didn’t warm to him but we never clashed,” Cardinal Pell told Sky News on Friday, speaking of the 10 months he lived with Gerald Ridsdale at the Ballarat East presbytery where Ridsdale molested an 11-year-old girl in the 1970s.
The country’s now most-senior Catholic said Ridsdale in essence was “a mystery man”.
Cardinal Pell said Ridsdale was undoubtedly a capable man and was not someone people complained about to him at the time, even though they might have about other priests.
“I once celebrated mass after him and I remember his vestments were there and they were sopping wet from some tension or something like that, and I remember noticing that at the time, and I thought him a very tense man,” he said.
“But that’s the only particular characteristic (of Ridsdale’s) that I can remember.”
Cardinal Pell said he was not the person he was being made out to be in the media.
“One of the interesting things is that when you become a hate figure people either imagine or I don’t know the worst stories about you,” he said.
“I don’t know what to make of it, it could be that the police commissioner is badly briefed, badly informed, I don’t know.
“It’s very difficult and very upsetting and there’s no way around it and I’ve steadily tried to put out what is the truth.”
Cardinal Pell also revealed during the lengthy interview with Sky that he later learned a psychiatrist treating Ridsdale in 1975 was contacted by police who said they had held concerns about him but were pleased something was finally being done about him.
However, the psychiatrist had been compelled to explain that he hadn’t been treating Ridsdale’s sexual behaviours, rather his anxiety.
Cardinal Pell, 74, who was questioned by the abuse royal commission over Ridsdale and other pedophile priests in the Ballarat and Melbourne dioceses this week, said he felt tremendous relief that everything was now said and done.
While acknowledging that his denials of a cover-up angered abuse victims who said he must have known, he said he regretted putting the church before victims in the past but he had never put himself before either.
He said the reason he sometimes came across as “wooden” and “armour-plated” was partly to do with how he’d been trained, partly to do with his personality and partly to do with “needing to survive”.
Pell to work with sex abuse survivors
Cardinal George Pell has met Australian victims of paedophile priests overnight and has promised to work with them to combat the “scourge of sexual abuse”.
He told the media after the surprise development it had been a “hard, honest and occasionally emotional” meeting with the Ballarat survivor group, who he saw in the Rome hotel where he gave his evidence to the royal commission.
Earlier in the week, the survivors declared they had given up on Cardinal Pell after he told the inquiry he was unaware of the activities of pedophile priests in the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s when he served there.
As well as promising to get Rome’s agencies to work with the group, he says he supports looking at setting up a research centre in Ballarat to aid healing and improve child protection.
The 74-year-old Ballarat-born cleric, who is the Vatican’s finance chief, said he had heard each of the survivor’s stories and their suffering.
“I know many of their families and I know of the goodness of so many people in Catholic Ballarat, a goodness which is not extinguished by the evil that was done.”
Cardinal Pell undertook to work with the survivors’ group effectively with the committees and agencies the church had in Rome, including the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
“One suicide is too many … and there have been many such tragic suicides.
“I commit myself to working with the group that is trying to stop this, so that suicide is not seen as an option for those who are suffering.”
Cardinal Pell said he supported work to investigate the feasibility of setting up a research centre in Ballarat to “enhance healing and improve protection”.
“It would be marvellous if our city became well known as an effective centre and example of practical health for all those wounded by the scourge of sexual abuse”, he told reporters after the meeting.
“I know of the goodness of so many people in Catholic Ballarat, a goodness not extinguished by the evil that was done.