Senior Vatican official admits he didn't act on pedophile claim

Australian Cardinal George Pell, center, arrives at the Quirinale hotel in Rome, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, to testify via videolink from the Rome hotel to the Royal Commission sitting in Sydney.

AP

CANBERRA, Australia -- A senior Vatican official told an Australian sex abuse inquiry on Thursday that he did not immediately act when a boy raised abuse allegations against a cleric in the 1970s and should have done more.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis' top financial adviser, gave evidence for a fourth and final day to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from a Rome hotel conference room a short distance from the Vatican.

Pell told the inquiry he was a junior priest in the Australian city of Ballarat in 1974 when an unnamed student at St. Patrick's College told him that a Christian Brothers teacher Edward Dowlan "is misbehaving with boys."

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From left, David Ridsdale, Tony Wardley and Phil Nagle, members of the group of victims and relatives of priestly sex abuses, arrive at the Quirinale hotel in Rome, Wednesday, March 2, 2016.
AP

Asked by commission chairman Peter McClellan what he did about it, Pell replied: "I didn't do anything about it."

Pell said he eventually raised concerns about Dowlan with the school chaplain. The chaplain replied that the Christian Brothers order was "dealing with" the allegations. Dowlan was later removed from the school.

"With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more," Pell said via videolink to the inquiry in Sydney.

McClellan asked why Pell needed experience to act on such a serious matter.

"People had a different attitude then," he responded. "There were no specifics about the activity, how serious it was and the boy wasn't asking me to do anything about it, but just lamenting and mentioning it."

Pell said he became more aware over the years in more senior roles in the church of his obligation to initiate his own response in such situations.

He rejected a suggestion from a victim's lawyer that he could have stopped Dowlan continuing to abuse children as a teacher until 1985.

"I think that's a vast overstatement," Pell said. "I did take the opportunity to ascertain the reliability of the rumors. I was told there was something in them and that it was being dealt with."

Pell said he had satisfied when Dowlan was removed from the school by the end of 1974.

"Now in the light of subsequent events, that was radically insufficient. But at that time, that was regarded, given the unspecified nature of the accusations, I thought that was something that was fair enough," Pell said.

Peter Blenkiron, a victim of Dowlan who flew with Ballarat abuse survivors to Rome to hear Pell's testimony, said he could have avoided the abuse if allegations against the pedophile had been acted on.

"I sat there while he admitted having knowledge of the guy that got me, Dowlan," Blenkiron told reporters outside the hotel.

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Paul Levey, member of the group of victims and relatives of priestly sex abuses, arrives at the Quirinale hotel in Rome, Wednesday, March 2, 2016.
AP

"It's difficult to watch a lack of empathy for something that has not only effected my life, but so many others for so many years," Blenkiron said.

The two dozen Australian abuse victims and their companions who traveled across the globe to witness Pell's testimony had hoped for a meeting with the pope before they return home on Friday.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said no papal audience was planned with the victims.

He noted that previously, such encounters have been organized far from the media spotlight.

However, the survivors had a meeting scheduled Thursday morning Rome time with the Rev. Hans Zollner, who is a member of the pope's sex abuse advisory commission. They were expected to meet with Pell in the afternoon.

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 the Ballarat bishop, as well as how the Melbourne archdiocese responded to allegations of abuse, including when Pell served as auxiliary bishop.

Pell told the inquiry that he met with the pope on Monday and arranged to provide a daily summary of what happened at the royal commission. Pell said he did not discuss his evidence with the pope.

"No, not really. Not at all," Pell said.