Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell (center) leaves the Quirinale hotel in Rome on Mar 1, 2016 after he gave evidence via video-link to Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney for a second of three days. Pell insisted he has the "full backing" of Pope Francis as he told an inquiry that abuse claims against Australia's most notorious paedophile priest were not "of much interest" to him. (Photo / Filippo Monteforte, AFP)
CANBERRA - Interrupted by jeers from observers, one of Pope Francis' top advisers on Tuesday denied an accusation that his testimony to an inquiry into child sex abuse was an attempt to deflect blame for the Catholic Church transferring Australia's worst pedophile priest from parish to parish.
Australian Cardinal George Pell was a priest in the 1970s in the town of Ballarat where he advised Bishop Ronald Mulkearns about the placement of priests within the diocese.
Pell, now the pope's top financial adviser, told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that he had no idea that priest Gerald Ridsdale was repeatedly transferred by the bishop for more than a decade because of pedophile accusations.
Pell rejected an accusation made by the lead counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, that his answers were designed to remove his own responsibility for Ridsdale's crimes.
"My answers were designed to answer your questions accurately and completely," Pell told the Sydney inquiry via videolink from a Rome hotel.
Asked if he accepted any responsibility of Ridsdale's repeated transfers within the Ballarat diocese, Pell replied: "No, I don't."
The royal commission — which is Australia's highest form of investigation — is investigating how Pell dealt with abuse allegations as a priest, educator and adviser to Mulkearns, as well as how the Melbourne archdiocese responded to allegations of abuse, including when Pell served as a Melbourne auxiliary bishop.
Tuesday was the second day of evidence for the 74-year-old cleric, who because of ill health could not travel to Australia to give evidence in person at the inquiry into decades of child abuse.
On Monday, Pell dubbed Mulkearns' handling of Ridsdale a "catastrophe for the church." He said Mulkearns was a prime candidate for the Vatican's proposed tribunal for negligent bishops, although there is no indication the elderly Mulkearns would stand trial by the time the tribunal is operational.
Commission chairman Peter McClellan asked Pell on Tuesday whether it was surprising that he hadn't heard rumors about the scandal Ridsdale had created in the diocese.
"Not necessarily, given the work I was doing," Pell said. "I wasn't working full-time in the diocese."
Furness said that as an adviser to the bishop — one of a group of Ballarat priests known as the College of Consultors — Pell should have questioned why Ridsdale was frequently transferred.
"I was happy to take the bishop's word that it was appropriate for him to be shifted," Pell said.
"Gentle and euphemistic language ... was regularly used by Bishop Mulkearns on these occasions, so that some of us were kept in the dark," he said.
Pell accompanied Ridsdale to court in 1993 when the pedophile faced his first child molesting charges. He was convicted in 1993, 2006 and 2013 with sexually abusing more than 50 children.
Pell told the royal commission said Mulkearns' refusal to act on the allegations against Ridsdale was extraordinary.
"Unfortunately, I would have to say that I can't nominate another bishop whose actions are so grave and inexplicable," Pell said.