Live coverage: day three of Cardinal George Pell before the abuse royal commission in Rome


Wrap of day three

- Special Counsel Gail Furness completed her questioning on behalf of the Royal Commission.

- Lawyers representing the victims are now questioning the Cardinal

- Cardinal Pell described the period under examination as an "extraordinary world of crimes and cover ups and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed".

- Today's evidence focused heavily on Doveton priest Father Peter Searson, and on priests who were allowed to resign on the pretext of ill health

- Father Searson was a bizarre character who carried a gun, stabbed a bird to death with a screwdriver and abused children during confession

- Father Searson held a knife to a young girl's chest in church and told her: "If you move, this will go through you"

- Cardinal Pell described Searson as "a disconcerting man, in fact in his worst moments he could be described as one of the most unpleasant priests I've met ... he was a difficult customer"

- But he also said: "We did not have sufficient evidence to remove him"

1:06pm: The hearing has been adjourned for the day. It will start an hour earlier at 7am and will go until 1pm tomorrow.

1:00pm: Kristine Hanscombe puts it to Cardinal Pell that he was "a figure of some awe" in Ballarat. Cardinal Pell says: "Certainly I would have been known by some schoolboys but let's not exaggerate this."

12:53pm: It's now 2:53am in Rome and Cardinal Pell is batting away questions about Timothy Green's allegations of abuse in Ballarat, which he says is "uncorroborated". 

12:46pm: SC Kristine Hanscombe is now appearing to represent victims from the Ballarat area and in particular Timothy Green.

She asks Cardinal Pell to accept that Timothy Green's evidence to the Commission is accurate.

Cardinal Pell says: "No, I just don't recall it, and it is uncorroborated."

12:33pm: Columnist Andrew Bolt, who attacked Cardinal Pell in his column today, has retreated from that position. On television this morning he said he felt "embarrassed because I think I've joined the pack attacking Pell."

He said: "In retrospect, if you look at those comments of his, he spoke incredibly poorly but to think he didn't care about abused children, which is so widely agreed to what his words suggested, is actually false."

He said: "Where the exaggeration has occurred is in thinking that he knows of abuse and he doesn't care. And that fits a stereotype. You've just got to think, I guess, in retrospect, really is that seriously contended a man like him (who) devoted 50 years to this church hears of abused children and he doesn't care? You've got to really think he's a sociopath, as some people clearly do, and I think that's highly improbable."

12:26pm: Commission chair McClellan is now asking Cardinal Pell about the structure of the Church. 

12:25pm: Gail Furness has completed her questioning of Cardinal Pell. 

12:24pm: Gail Furness has now brought up the matter of the Church considering the ramifications of compensation for victims.

Gail Furness: You recall at this time, 1993, that it was an active issue in the church, how to protect its assets if it is successfully sued in child sexual abuse claims?

Cardinal Pell: It was an active issue. I think the basis for all the discussions was that adequate compensation would have to be paid, whatever that was in whatever way that was decided, but also we had to know just what the legal situation was about the assets and it says there they spoke about the protection of church assets. That certainly wasn't the only consideration but that certainly was a consideration.

12:23pm: Cardinal Pell has also offered to assist with their requests to meet the Pope. 

12:21pm: The statement from Cardinal George Pell regarding his conditions for meeting with the victims who have travelled to Rome.

He stipulates that "because of the private and pastoral nature of these meetings it would not be appropriate for media or legal representatives to attend".

He says he "is happy to meet survivors either individually or in smaller groups" and "private meetings offer a good opportunity for this". 

12:18pm: Cardinal Pell is now shown minutes from a meeting at which he was present that showed how Father Daniel was allowed to resign due to ill health, even though he had been accused of sexual misconduct against minors. Cardinal Pell concedes that it was "at least partly misleading".

12:17am: Here is a copy of the letter the survivors have faxed off to Pope Francis.

12:12pm: Gail Furness now turns to Father Desmond Gannon (pictured), who admitted to sexual abuse "yet his resignation was publicly attributed to health reasons". 

Cardinal Pell says he does not recall being consulted.

"If I had of been consulted I would have had the capacity to object. Certainly ... if a man to retire on health grounds has certainly to be unwell, I would say of course that attributing such a retirement to ill health is misleading and obviously such a person would have to be whatever the reason given, would have to be removed from pastoral activity."

Father Desmond Gannon. Photo: Mark Wilson

Father Desmond Gannon. Photo: Mark Wilson

12:01pm: Sky News is reporting that abuse survivors have turned down a meeting with Cardinal Pell because of the conditions he wanted to impose on that meeting. 

11:58am: Gail Furness takes Cardinal Pell through a complaint in 1978 by parents of a boy in Gladstone Park parish against Father Baker, which reached Archbishop Little. She says Archbishop Little was "dismissive of the complaint" and moved Father Baker to another parish. 

Gail Furness now directs Cardinal Pell to minutes of a meeting that the Cardinal attended that indicate Father Baker's move.

11:54am: We're back from the adjournment. Special Counsel Gail Furness (pictured) is now moving on to other priests, particularly Father Bill Baker. 

11:48am: Nick Miller reports a Commission official has confirmed that Cardinal Pell's evidence will stretch into a fourth day on Thursday.

There may have to be another "extended hours" session to try to fit in all the expected cross-examination and re-examination by the teams of lawyers. 

However there is at this stage no provision for a fifth day - the venue wasn't booked on the off-chance.

On previous occasions when a hearing overran they have tried to reschedule another appearance - but that may prove a logistical bridge too far with this special video setup in Rome. 

It seems likely that the Cardinal will face just one more day of questions after this, and if they run out of time the Commission may have to settle with all the answers it got.

11.45am: Listen to Neil Mitchell calling for George Pell to quit on 3AW this morning.

Neil Mitchell says Cardinal George Pell is finished.

The 3AW Mornings host said the more the royal commission on sex abuse in the Catholic church went on, the angrier he got with how it had all been handled.

"George Pell should resign, quit, retire - I don't care what you call it - just get out," Neil Mitchell said on Wednesday.

"He should apologise sincerely, he should admit his failures and should meet personally with the survivors from Ballarat.

"And if Christ could wash the feet of his disciples, then George Pell should throw himself on the floor in front of these people and beg forgiveness - that would be the Christian thing to do.

"He must quit – he's finished."

But Andrew Collins, who has travelled to Rome with the survivors group, said he did not want Cardinal Pell to stand down.

"If George Pell goes, we lose the highest ranking Australian in the Vatican that we can reach out to," he said.

Mr Collins said the trip was "never about" forcing Cardinal Pell out of the church.

"I would rather see him turn around, apologise, tell the truth, show some empathy and work with us," he said.

But he admits that so far, it hadn't happened.

"He has not looked at us at all. All he has to do is turn his head slightly," Mr Collins said.

Click PLAY below to hear Andrew Collins from Rome.

11:25am: The hearing has again been suspended for a short break. It will extend to 1pm today.

11:20am: Cardinal Pell says he knew paedophile priest Father Peter Searson "was a serious problem". But says: "We did not have sufficient evidence to remove him."

11:17am: Chair McClellan tells Cardinal Pell the Royal Commission has now spoken to over 5000 survivors.

He tells Cardinal Pell the church had a responsibility to deal with their allegations whether or not they are prepared to give evidence to police and courts.

He says parents "don't want their children to be tangled up in the criminal justice process". Cardinal Pell says: "Sometimes they don't want to be involved in a church investigation either."

Peter McClellan: "That does not relieve church of responsibility to act." 

Cardinal Pell: "Yes, but it is a factor in what happens next."

11:12am: Extraordinary allegation now that Father Searson held a knife to the chest of a young girl in the church and told her "if you move this will go through you". 

11:02am: Gail Furness now brings up the letter to the Vicar General that described Peter Searson stabbing to death a bird with a screwdriver in front of children.

Cardinal Pell responds: "I don't know if the bird was already dead."

Furness directs him to another letter from that time that lists "a litany of allegations" against Searson. 

10:56am: Gail Furness now directs the Cardinal to a letter from the Archbishop in 1986 written to Peter Searson. It talked about the concerns held in the community and said there were "valid grounds for a parish priest to consider offering his resignation".

Furness now puts it to Cardinal Pell that his testimony is that the Catholic Education Office, the Archbishop, Ballarat Bishop Mulkearrns and several other senior Catholics were deceiving him.

She says: "It's an extraordinary position, Cardinal."

Cardinal Pell: "This was an extraordinary world of crimes and covers ups and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed."

10:56am: Furness AGAIN puts it to Pell that he knew about Ridsdale’s and Searson’s crimes.

"This was an extraordinary world of crimes and covers ups and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed."

Pell AGAIN denies all knowledge.

10:50am: Gail Furness has just gone for the jugular.

Special Counsel Furness says to Cardinal Pell that his reasons for not being briefed by the Catholic Education Office are "completely implausible". 

Gail Furness: "I suggest Cardinal that the evidence you have given has been designed to defect blame from you for doing nothing."

Cardinal Pell: "That is not accurate."

10:45am: Commission chair Peter McClellan (pictured) intervenes to ask why it would make any sense for the Catholic Education Office to cover up the Searson scandal to Cardinal Pell, who was at that time an auxilliary bishop.

10:41am: Cardinal Pell says he didn't have authority to stop Peter Searson. 

"I didn't actually have the capacity myself to act against him but I took the material to the Vicar General and ... certainly discussed it with the Archbishop." He also says: "In retrospect I might have been a bit more pushy with all the parties involved."

10:39am: Peter Searson was a bizarre character indeed. He liked to dress in military fatigues, carried a handgun and used the sacred Catholic sacrament of confession to get to children alone. Here's a backgrounder. 

10:32am: Cardinal Pell says he knew there were allegations of sex abuse against Peter Searson in 1989 but only that he "might have been told in a non-specific way".

He subsequently adds: "Most of the things that were mentioned about him were primarily not about sexual misconduct."

10:23am: Gail Furness is now questioning Cardinal Pell whether or not he sought more information about sexual misconduct from the Catholic education office. 

10:15am: For background, the Catholic Church found Father Peter Searson guilty of child sex abuse in 1997. 

The ABC's Four Corners program obtained a confidential draft report that showed the former Doveton parish priest was found guilty of sexual abuse by the church during an internal hearing in 1997. 

10:13am: This just in from Melissa Cunningham in Rome:

Ballarat survivors have made an impassioned public plea to meet with Pope Francis before they leave Rome on Friday.

Survivor Phil Nagle said victims had lost all faith in Cardinal George Pell after last night's hearing.

Out the front of the Hotel Quirinale in Rome where Cardinal Pell is giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse said they contacted Pope Francis

on Monday but were yet to here back.

They requested the Pope meet with them as the conclusion of the hearing.

"He (Pell) doesn't care about us," Mr Nagle said. "We want our voices heard, we are here because we want to do something to protect future generations of children." 

10:10am: We're now revisting an episode from 1989 when Cardinal Pell was visited by a delegation who had a list of grievances about Father Searson when he was in the Doveton parish, including:

- He had shown a small group of children a dead body in a coffin

- He was cruel to an animal in front of young children

- He used the children's toilets unnecessarily and harassed the children

10:05am: Gail Furness is now taking Cardinal Pell through letters to church authorities that detailed several complaints from parents about Father Searson, including one about a girl who had been traumatised by him, a boy who Searson had hit in the face with a clipboard, and an episode with a cat that Furness describes as "extreme cruelty". 

Gail Furness: "At this stage he should have been referred to the point, shouldn't he?"

Cardinal Pell: "I believe so."

Gail Furness: "He'd committed a criminal act of assault, or it was alleged he had."

Cardinal Pell: "Yes."

9:56am: Gail Furness points Cardinal Pell to a letter sent to the Vicar-General containing allegations that Father Peter Searson "sexually assaulted my friend and it's not going to happen again". 

9.52am: The Courier has set up a message wall for you to pass on your support to the survivors. You can find it here at the bottom of the story.

9:46am: Abuse survivors in Rome are seeking a meeting with the Pope. 

In a statement read to the assembled media, they said:

"We are getting a little bit tired of hearing what George (Pell) is saying up there on the stand. 

“We feel we only have two more days here in Rome and we want to be heard and we want someone to show they care about us and that can possibly help change this for the future into the future."

9:44am: Former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who is terminally ill, will be recalled by the child abuse royal commission. AAP reports: 

The royal commission confirmed on Wednesday that Bishop Mulkearns would be recalled to give evidence.

It is expected he may re-appear in the coming days, after the commission also confirmed Cardinal Pell would complete his evidence on Thursday.

Cardinal Pell, in his second day of evidence on Tuesday, laid the blame on his former mentor Bishop Mulkearns for decades of cover-ups which put hundreds of children at risk from Ridsdale.

Ridsdale is serving 24 years in jail after being convicted of 138 counts of indecent assault and abuse.

Cardinal Pell said the bishop deceived and lied to him, and described his actions as "reprehensible".

"His repeated refusal to act is, I think, absolutely extraordinary," he said.

But Ridsdale's nephew, one of his victims, David Ridsdale, said that in blaming Bishop Mulkearns, Cardinal Pell had thrown "a whole bunch of people under a bus".

Bishop Mulkearns appeared via videolink to the commission last week, and is expected to do so again.

He is terminally ill with cancer and living in a nursing home.

A medical report provided to the commission stipulates that he can only give evidence for 90 minutes at a time and requires several days to recover between questioning.

9:25am: The Centre Against Sexual Assault Ballarat has urged people affected by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearings to seek help if needed. Read more here.

9:23am: Gail Furness is now taking Cardinal Pell through an allegation that the parents of a girl had complained that Father Searson had made a sexual approach to their daughter. ​

9:19am: Gail Furness is taking Cardinal Pell through evidence that Father Searson made children kneel between his legs. 

The majority of the focus has been on the Melbourne Archdiocese today. Ballarat is expected to come back into the spotlight as the hearing progresses.

9:14am: Gail Furness takes Cardinal Pell through a letter that stated Father Searson told one girl never to look at herself in the mirror, and tickled another on the stomach. Cardinal Pell responds: "That's terrible."

9:06am: Cardinal Pell has recalled Peter Searson: "He was a disconcerting man, in fact in his worst moments he could be described as one of the most unpleasant priests I've met ... he was a difficult customer".

9:01am: Gail Furness has returned to the business of Peter Searson in Sunbury.

"He was a disconcerting man, in fact in his worst moments he could be described as one of the most unpleasant priests I've met ... he was a difficult customer".

Cardinal George Pell describing Father Peter Searson.

Cardinal Pell once again criticises the former Archbishop Frank Little, saying his failure to respond to concerns about Searson "absolutely unsatisfactory."

Father Peter Searson. Picture: ABC.

Father Peter Searson. Picture: ABC.

8:44am: Cardinal Pell has suggested that former Archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Little, retired early because of issues surrounding sex abuse. He says "it wouldn't surprise me" if he had been asked to resign because of the complaints.

8:36am: Cardinal Pell has now criticised Archbishop Frank Little (now deceased) for "wrong decisions". He said: "I was strongly critical of Archbishop Little's handling of cases against priests."

He has blamed him for not acting against paedophile priest Peter Searson, who worked in the Sunbury parish.

One of Searson's victims described him to the Royal Commission last year as "a very scary man and and very intimidating, with a gaze that would just pierce you like he was looking right through you".

Archbishop Little has previously faced scrutiny at the royal commission, with claims he “shut his eyes” to child sexual abuse. Read more here.

8:26am: This update has just been provided by The Courier’s Melissa Cunningham in Rome:

Archbishop Frank Little.

Archbishop Frank Little.

“The mood among survivors coming into the Commission tonight is tense. 

Quite a few of them are still reeling from last night's hearing.

They are gearing up for evidence about survivor David Ridsdale's claims that Cardinal Pell attempted to bribe him. 

Testifying at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in May last year, Mr  Ridsdale said he told then Father Pell in a February 2, 1993 phone call he had been repeatedly raped by his uncle because he had known him since he was born and felt he was a Catholic figure he could trust. 

David Ridsdale, flanked by fellow survivors Dominic Ridsdale and Phil Nagle.

David Ridsdale, flanked by fellow survivors Dominic Ridsdale and Phil Nagle.

He said after he disclosed his abuse to the senior Catholic, Cardinal Pell responded: "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.”

Mr Ridsdale said he had nothing to hide and was feeling confident coming into tonight's hearing.

"My story has never changed, I have always stuck to the truth," he said 

Ballarat clergy survivor Phil Nagle said survivors would all be focused on supporting Mr Ridsdale tonight,

"The commissioners have set the scene and we believe they will go hard on Cardinal Pell tonight," he said. "Our focus is going to be on ensuring David gets through tonight as best he can." 

8:25am: Outside the hearing, Cardinal George Pell's supporters have attacked the Royal Commission's investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, calling it the "worst sort of inquisition". Fairfax Media’s foreign correspondent Nick Miller reports:

Melissa Cunningham

Melissa Cunningham

They accused the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of biased questioning, and of trying to force the Vatican's economic tsar to commit more Holy See funds to helping abuse survivors.

Experienced Vatican reporter Ed Pentin, writing for the National Catholic Register, said the cardinal's supporters – who were present at Rome's Hotel Quirinale to witness his evidence – railed against the "injustice of a one-sided hearing" saying the Commission "appears to be presuming Cardinal Pell guilty until proven innocent".

Pentin reported that "one priest present at the hearing called the lack of logic in (commissioner Peter) McClellan and Furness' questioning 'astonishing'".

"He also criticised how the two cross-examiners underlined how every priest should ensure the safety of children, but omitted to point out that it was the police who first alerted Bishop Mulkearns about Ridsdale's abuses yet took insufficient action."

"Why not interrogate the police and civic authorities as well?" the priest told Pentin.

"It's an entirely unjust fishing expedition," another priest said, saying any apparent contradiction in the 74 year-old cardinal's evidence could be a result of fatigue – but might lead to him being charged.

"It's the worst form of an inquisition," the priest said.

8:20am: Special Counsel Gail Furness is now questioning Cardinal Pell about his time as auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, a position he held from 1998. She is teasing out how involved Cardinal Pell was in the placement of priests in parishes, and the movements of priests to different parishes. 

8:16am: The Commission has now returned to examining what happened with Edward Dowlan, who was eventually jailed for abusing boys. 

8:07am: Meanwhile, Cardinal George Pell appears to have lost his staunchest ally as News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt launched a withering attack on the man he has long described as the victim of a witch hunt.

In his column today, Bolt says the Cardinal "uttered the words that will stain his reputation forever" when he said that the story of notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale "wasn't of much interest to me".

Bolt asks if the Vatican's "third-most powerful leader" is "a liar when he says he never knew what Ridsdale, his colleague, was doing in Ballarat". "Or was he just dangerously indifferent to his responsibilities and to the warning signs that children were being raped?"

Bolt is in Rome to cover the Cardinal's testimony and is due to interview him directly after the final hearing on Thursday for Sky TV.

8:04am: The hearing has begun with Gail Furness SC, counsel assisting the commission, straight into it with Cardinal George Pell, asking him to define paedophilia. 

7:57am: Watch Pell square the blame on Bishop Mulkearns here.

7:55am: While we wait for the hearing to commence, let’s quickly recap on what happened yesterday.

In an heated day where Cardinal Pell came under intense scrutiny, he revealedthat at the time of offending, he didn’t have “much interest” in the crimes of paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.

Pell also claimed Bishop Ronald Mulkearns was fully aware of all sexual offending committed by a number of priests, but kept it hidden from the Cardinal.

Paul Levey, one of Ridsdale’s main victims, told the media in Rome after the hearing that he simply could not believe Cardinal Pell did not know of any offending.

The Courier’s Melissa Cunningham is in Rome and filed this gut-wrenching story last night.

7:50am: Good morning and welcome to our live coverage of day three of Cardinal George Pell’s hearing before the abuse royal commission in Rome.