In 1993, George Pell was a rising star in the Catholic Church in Australia, his résumé sterling, his ambition well-known. After receiving a PhD from Oxford, he spent more than a decade as education vicar in the Victorian city of Ballarat, then rose to become auxiliary bishop of Melbourne.
So that year, when his onetime housemate and former chaplain of a Ballarat religious school was charged with sexually assaulting young boys, Pell’s superiors called on him for support.
As the chaplain, Gerald Ridsdale, made his first appearance in Melbourne Magistrate’s Court, Pell walked beside him in solidarity, clad in his black priest’s robe and jacket. The hope, Pell would later say, was that his presence alongside Ridsdale would “lessen his time in jail.”
A photo of the moment made the rounds in Australian media, stoking outrage among victims and their supporters who wondered why the high-ranking clergyman had accompanied the accused pedophile to court. Ridsdale would go on to plead guilty to the charges and later be imprisoned on dozens of other counts of sexually assaulting children, in one of the most notorious pedophilia rings in the country’s history.
Pell, now a top-ranking cardinal in the Catholic Church, has been haunted by the picture with Ridsdale over the past two decades, during which he has been dogged by claims that he covered up reports of sexual assault by members of the Australian clergy and abused young boys himself. His critics say the image of him standing at Ridsdale’s side represents a dismissive stance on sex abuse claims — his “coldheartedness” and “contempt,” in the words of one victims’ advocate.
Now, Pell himself is facing charges. Australian authorities announced Thursday that Pell, who runs the Vatican’s finances, has been charged with “historical sexual assault offenses” stemming from multiple complaints.
Victoria Deputy Police Commissioner Shane Patten did not offer details about the case but said Pell had been notified through a legal representative that he must appear in court on July 18, as The Washington Post has reported.
Pell’s job as the Vatican’s treasurer has been described as one of the most powerful in Rome, second only to the pope. He has been accused of sex abuse on multiple occasions, and authorities confirmed last year he was under investigation, but these are the first criminal charges brought against him.
In a news conference from the Vatican on Thursday, Pell said he was the victim of a “relentless character assassination” that had “strengthened his resolve” to clear his name. He added that he had spoken to Pope Francis and had been granted leave to return to Australia.
“I repeat that I am innocent of these charges,” he said. “They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
Pell, 76, has been plagued by scandal for decades. In Ballarat, where he served as episcopal vicar for education from 1973 to 1984, untold numbers of children were beaten and sexually assaulted by priests and nuns at the St. Alipius Primary School.
Australian media have documented the abuse extensively. A February 2016 story by the Australian public broadcasting network SBS called the school “a pedophile’s paradise and a child’s nightmare.” Abuse was rampant throughout the parish in the 1970s, according to the Australian newspaper The Age, which once called Ballarat “probably the worst of Australia’s 32 dioceses for sexual abuse.”
After studying in the United Kingdom, Pell in 1971 returned to Ballarat, where he started out as an assistant priest before becoming education vicar. Gerald Ridsdale served as chaplain of St. Alipius in the early 1970s. The men shared a house in the diocese for about two years.
Around that time and for years after, Ridsdale and several other priests at the school sexually abused their students on a near daily basis. When allegations against Ridsdale began to surface in the mid-1970s, he was relocated to other parishes, following a pattern that the Catholic Church has used in other priest abuse cases, including those uncovered by the Boston Globe in 2002.
Ridsdale would go on to tell his family that his victims likely numbered in the “hundreds,” according to The Age. The youngest of them was 4 years old.
An Australian Royal Commission investigating sex abuse in the church heard testimony in 2015 that all male teachers at the school were molesting children in St. Alipius at one point, and that the abuse continued for years, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. A lawyer for the commission told the ABC that the abuse was so traumatizing that 12 boys in a fourth-grade class of 33 committed suicide later in life.
Ridsdale was charged in May 1993 with 30 sex abuse offenses, all of them during the time Pell was education vicar of Ballarat. Pell said he knew nothing about the extent of Ridsdale’s crimes.
By that time, Pell had a track record of brushing aside reports of sex abuse. He admitted to the Royal Commission that he ignored a 1974 report from a teenager that a different Ballarat clergyman was “misbehaving with boys,” saying he did nothing about it because the teenager “wasn’t asking me to do anything about it.” In the same sessions, he apologized for dismissing a claim about Ridsdale’s abuse as “a sad story” that “wasn’t of much interest to me,” as the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Pell told the Royal Commission that his workload prevented him from looking into sex abuse. Though in retrospect some allegations were plausible, he said, “the instinct was more to protect the institution, the community of the church from shame,” according to the Morning Herald.
Advocates have argued that Pell deliberately suppressed abuse claims.
“He has a catalogue of denigrating people … almost sociopathic, I would go as far as to say, this lack of care,” Peter Saunders, a priest abuse survivor who served on the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, told the Australian television program “60 Minutes” in 2015.
Ridsdale pleaded guilty in 1994 to 46 counts of sexual abuse and received a 15-year prison sentence. In 2006, he received an additional four years after admitting to nearly three dozen more charges. And in 2013, after more offenses came to light, he received an additional eight years behind bars, as The Post has reported. Among the victims was Ridsdale’s nephew, who testified that he told Pell about Ridsdale’s abuse in 1993, only to be ignored. Pell denied the allegation.
The Royal Commission asked Pell in March of last year why he had agreed to walk Ridsdale into the courthouse in Melbourne during his 1993 criminal trial. Pell told them he might not have if he had known what Ridsdale had done.
“I had some status as an auxiliary bishop and I was asked to appear with the ambition that this would lessen the term of punishment, lessen his time in jail,” he said.
“I walked with him following the Christian conviction that it’s an appropriate activity to be kind to prisoners,” Pell said. “The separation of the sheep from the goats is their acts of kindness we do to people, including those who are prisoners and those who are at the bottom of the pile like Ridsdale.”
Decades later, the image of the two of them together was still a searing memory for some abuse victims.
“To me it’s absolutely outrageous,” Saunders, the victims’ advocate, told “60 Minutes,” “and it demonstrates once again the callousness, the coldheartedness and the contempt that George Pell appears to display for this whole issue and particularly for the victims of these dreadful crimes.”