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Pell should have acted on paedophile priest in 1989, commission finds

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Cardinal George Pell should have advised senior Catholic authorities to remove a paedophile priest in 1989, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has found.

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In its unredacted reports tabled by the Federal Government this morning, the commission found that Cardinal Pell, who was then an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, should have advocated for Father Peter Searson to be removed.

Father Searson died in 2009 without facing charges, but the commission heard he abused children in parishes and schools across three districts over more than a decade.

Cardinal Pell told the inquiry he was handed a list of grievances and allegations about Father Searson in 1989, but believed the Catholic Education Office and the then-archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Little, were handling the allegations levelled against the priest, and did not think it was his place to investigate them.

However the commission found as an auxilliary bishop at the time, Cardinal Pell should have taken action.

“It was incumbent on Bishop Pell, as an Auxiliary Bishop with responsibilities for the welfare of the children in the Catholic community of his region, to take such action as he could to advocate that Father Searson be removed or suspended or, at least, that a thorough investigation be undertaken of the allegations,” the commission said.

“Cardinal Pell’s evidence was that he could not recall recommending a particular course of action to the Archbishop. He conceded that, in retrospect, he might have been ‘a bit more pushy’ with all of the parties involved.

“We do not accept any qualification that this conclusion is only appreciable in retrospect.

“On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989, it ought to have been obvious to him at the time. He should have advised the Archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so.”

The royal commission also found that by 1973, Cardinal Pell was aware of child abuse by clergy and had considered measures to avoid situations that “might provoke gossip about it”.

In its report on the Ballarat diocese, the commission said it was satisfied that by 1973, Cardinal Pell had considered the “prudence” of Gerald Ridsdale taking boys on overnight camps.

“The most likely reason for this, as Cardinal Pell acknowledged, was the possibility that if priests were one-on-one with a child then they could sexually abuse a child or at least provoke gossip about such a prospect,” the commission said.

“By this time, child sexual abuse was on his radar, in relation to not only Monsignor Day but also Ridsdale.

“We are also satisfied that by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it.”

Ridsdale, who is in prison, later admitted to abusing hundreds of children over several years.

The commission’s findings concerning the Melbourne and Ballarat dioceses were heavily redacted in its final 2017 report in order to avoid prejudicing the trial of Cardinal Pell, who had been charged with child sexual abuse.

But after his unanimous High Court acquittal in April, the way was cleared for the release of the unredacted findings.

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