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Commission Asks High-Ranking Vatican Official About Sex Abuse Of Children


In all the years the Catholic Church has faced accusations of condoning sex abuse, this has never quite happened. A top official at the Vatican admitted that the church itself made enormous mistakes. He's a prominent cardinal. His name is George Pell. He's Australian, and he has been answering questions under oath from an Australian commission investigating sexual abuse of children. Joshua McElwee is covering this story. He's the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Joshua, welcome back to program.

JOSHUA MCELWEE: Yeah, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: How much farther has this cardinal gone than the church has in the past?

MCELWEE: Well, it really was an extraordinary event. Over four nights here in Rome, Cardinal George Pell, who is the number three official at the Vatican, has been giving testimony to an Australian commission about his actions in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, about how the Australian church responded to claims of sexual abuse, and how he himself responded and was really put on the spot.

INSKEEP: Talk me over this video link with Australia, right, which is why the unusual time.

MCELWEE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: And so how distinct were these statements?

MCELWEE: Well, they were really trying to get information from the cardinal about his own response to abuses when he was serving as a key advisor to a bishop in a rural section of southeastern Australia, and then as himself, becoming auxiliary bishop and a bishop. And they put him on the spot about several different priest abusers and why he hadn't done more to report them to authorities.

INSKEEP: And he said he had not gone far enough, I assume.

MCELWEE: The most extraordinary moment came in the last night of the testimony when he admit that a schoolchild had come to him in 1974 to say that one of the teachers at a school was misbehaving with boys. And the cardinal said that he had not reported that to authorities. He told the school chaplain about it and then had assumed that they would take care of the issue, and they obviously didn't.

INSKEEP: Where does this leave Pope Francis, who has been closely advised by this man?

MCELWEE: Exactly. Cardinal Pell is the head of the new secretariat for the economy. He's been a key advisor to the Pope, helping the Pope kind of revive or reform the Vatican bureaucracy. And so now going forward, a lot of people are wondering if Cardinal Pell will continue in his position. He turned 75 in June, which is the normal age at which bishops retire. And it may be a situation where the cardinal is not really asked to stay on, and they just retire him when he turns 75.

INSKEEP: Does the cardinal face potential legal action in Australia, having admitted under oath that he failed to report sex abuse?

MCELWEE: Well, for cardinal - what the cardinal said was it was a child telling him a teacher was misbehaving with boys. So it wasn't clear to him, at least in his testimony, that it was sexual abuse. The commission doesn't have prosecutorial power, but it can recommend to local prosecutors basically findings of fact. And so now we would wait in the next few months to see what the commission does and if there might be any such communication between the commission and local prosecutors.

INSKEEP: Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter. Thanks very much.

MCELWEE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.