Australia's most senior Catholic says the royal commission will help determine whether reports about child abuse in the church have been a “significant exaggeration”.
“We think it's an opportunity to help the victims. It's an opportunity to clear the air, to separate fact from fiction,“ Cardinal George Pell said at a Sydney press conference.
He said the church had worked hard to uncover child abuse.
“We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in the Catholic Church. We object to it being exaggerated,” Cardinal Pell said.
“We object to being described as the only cab on the rank.
“We acknowledge, with shame, the extent of the problem and I want to assure you that we have been serious in attempting to eradicate it and deal with it.
“This commission will enable those claims to be validated or found to be a significant exaggeration.”
Cardinal Pell also questioned whether ongoing “furore in the press” about the alleged abuse was helpful to the victims.
“To what extent are wounds simply opened by the re-running of events which have been reported not only once, but many times previously?” he asked.
Cardinal Pell said the church would “cooperate fully” and that he hoped the commission would bring the victims peace and that they would feel “that justice is being done”.
He also denied the Catholic Church knowingly transferred priests suspected of child sex abuse to other parishes.
“It is completely prohibited to shift priests who have been charged, to shift them around,” he said.
“If and where that has been done, that is against the protocols.”
He denied ever being involved in a case where victims were offered money so they wouldn't go through the courts.
Premier Colin Barnett tempered his support for a royal commission into child sex abuse today, saying the one announced by Julia Gillard yesterday appeared “too wide ranging”.
Yesterday, when the push was on for the inquiry but it had yet to be announced by the Prime Minister, Mr Barnett said: “If there is sufficient evidence there then maybe there does need to be a national royal commission”.
Today, while reiterating his hope that the royal commission would bring “closure” to victims, Mr Barnett expressed concern about the potential breadth and length of the inquiry.
“You know, the record of royal commissions is not great and I suspect this may raise expectations that are not met, people are talking already about it going on for several years,” he said.
“I think while it will hopefully bring closures to victims it will also be a heartbreaking exercise for many, many people.
“It just seems to me that it’s perhaps too wide-ranging and we’re going to get back into child migrants in the post-war period, churches, State institutions – this could go on forever.”
Cardinal Pell, who was Archbishop of Melbourne before his current post as Archbishop of Sydney, said the church had shown it was committed to addressing allegations of sexual abuse by clergy through its internal complaints system, dubbed the Melbourne Response, and its independent commissioner.
He also explained church protocol for priests who confess to child sex abuse to another priest.
“If that is done outside the confessional (it can be passed on),” he said.
“(But) the Seal of Confession is inviolable.”
He said priests should avoid hearing confession from colleagues suspected of committing child sex abuse to avoid being bound by the Seal of Confession.
“If the priest knows beforehand about such a situation, the priest should refuse to hear the confession,” said Cardinal Pell.
“That would be my advice, and I would never hear the confession of a priest who is suspected of such a thing.”
Cardinal Pell insisted the church has never dismissed allegations of abuse, and said there has been a persistent press campaign against its organisation.
“We have been unable to convince public opinion that for basically for the last 20 years, whatever the imperfections, we've been serious about this,” he told reporters.
“Because there's a press campaign focused largely on us, it does not mean that we are largely the principal culprit.”
Church protocol for dealing with contemporary allegations of child sex abuse were up to scratch, Cardinal Pell said.
“These are adequate procedures. They've been out for months,” he told reporters.
He later added that he believed “cynicism” over the church's willingness to address abuse claims was limited to “elements of the press (and) elements of the public”.
He also questioned whether the NSW Police Force was adequately resourced to deal with abuse claims.
“I would welcome the release of the statistics which are available showing the number of cases that the police are dealing with, how many of them might involve Catholic teachers, priests or others, how many of these incidents are historical incidents, how many are happening today,” he said.
“I'm interested in asking whether police have sufficient resources to deal with the day-to-day problems, as well as historical.”
He explained as a “priestly act of solidarity” his 1993 decision to accompany in court Ballarat priest Father Gerald Ridsdale, who was subsequently jailed for child sex offences.
“In retrospect I didn't realise then what a wrong impression that would give to the victims,” he said.
Cardinal Pell said he understood why senior police officer Peter Fox had spoken out about child sex abuse, but that he didn't believe his claims of a church cover-up were true.“I don't think there is sufficient evidence for him to say because of the particular problems that he faced at this time or that time, that the church is covering up. Because we're not.”
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