'Evidence emerging' abuse inquiry cardinal 'knew', victims say


Rome (AFP)

Evidence is emerging that Australian Cardinal George Pell covered up the sexual abuse of children by priests on his watch, survivors told AFP on Tuesday, on the sidelines of a hearing into the top Vatican official's culpability.

"We're starting to see solid evidence that he did cover it up, even though he'll still deny it," said Anthony Foster, father to two girls who were abused, one of whom went on to commit suicide while the other ended up in full-time care.

Vatican finance chief Pell has been giving evidence from a hotel in Rome via video-link to Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney, under the watchful gaze of abuse victims.

"We hear stories from victims, and what has happened as the Royal Commission has progressed, those stories have been confirmed with solid evidence," said Foster, who travelled to Rome with his wife for the four-day hearings.

The inquiry has so far focused on the town of Ballarat near Melbourne, where Pell grew up and worked, and how the Church dealt with complaints, many dating back to the 1970s, against the Catholic clergy.

So far he has admitted the Church "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests but said claims against the country's most notorious clerical child abuser were not "of much interest" to him.

"It's very sad to see that Cardinal Pell doesn't want to shame the Church, doesn't want to put the victims first," said Stephen Woods, 54, who was abused by three members of the clergy as a child and suffers from chronic depression.

Two of his brothers were also abused by the clergy: one died after his life "spiralled out of control" following his rape by a priest, the other was "molested and beaten, and has been in and out of prison his whole life".

Woods said it was clear that Pell, the former Archbishop of Melbourne who once shared a home with one of Australia's most notorious paedophile priests, was using power and money to dodge his Ballarat responsibilities.

- 'Still protecting himself' -

"He was there, he had access to information, he was very closely tied to the schools and the churches that my family were involved in. He was there, he should have known, he should have asked questions.

"The fact that he is spending obscene amounts of money on lawyers says very clearly that he's still after protecting himself, the history of the Church, the Church's assets et cetera from any claims that the sexual assault victims may have against the organisation," he added.

Foster said he hoped the Commission's work would help improve the system for dealing with suspect paedophile priests and compensating their victims, not only in Australia but around the world.

"We've kept going because of a need to try and get some justice for those who are left," he said. His daughter Emma overdosed when she was 26, "trying to get rid of whatever demon was inside", while her sister Katie was hit by a car after a drinking binge and is now severely disabled.

"We failed for our own children, but what we do now is using our experience and the strength that we have to try and get justice and help for other people," Foster said.

And he says he cannot rely on Pope Francis's promises of a "no-tolerance" approach to clerical sex abuse or new Vatican guidelines.

"The structure of the Church really worries me. How effective can those guidelines be? In Australia the Catholic Church consists of 45 different dioceses and 195 different religious orders, with no central leader except the pope, and he's here, not in Australia."

And despite claims of a Church crack-down on dog-collared abusers, Foster still doesn't "think that children are safe in the Catholic Church in Australia to this day."