An Australian inquiry into child sex abuse agreed Monday that victims could be present when Cardinal George Pell gives evidence from Rome, as Catholic bishops called for him to be treated fairly.
Vatican finance chief Pell, who has claimed he is the subject of a smear campaign, has said he is too unwell to travel to Australia and will give evidence via video-link from Rome next week.
The Royal Commission, which is looking into how Catholic authorities in Melbourne and the Victorian city of Ballarat responded to claims of abuse, said it had received requests from survivors to be present for Pell’s questioning.
“The Commission considers that to be a reasonable request,” chair Justice Peter McClellan said.
Pell, formerly the top Catholic official in Australia, has always denied knowing of any child abuse occurring in Ballarat, where he was once based, including by paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale who abused dozens of children over two decades.
But the news that he was too ill to make the journey home to testify in person over alleged cover-ups during his time as the head of Australia’s Catholic hierarchy was met with anger by survivors.
A crowdfunding campaign set up to raise Aus$55,000 (US$39,000) to send some to Rome to be present for his evidence was met with an overwhelming response; within a week, more than 4,500 people had given money and over Aus$203,000 was raised.
Pell, who was ordained a priest in the diocese of Ballarat in 1966, has given evidence to the Royal Commission previously.
But the latest hearing comes after a weekend report in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper that Australian police were investigating claims that he groomed and abused five to 10 boys while a priest.
“The allegations are without foundation and utterly false,” a statement issued by Pell’s office in Rome said in response to the story that a police taskforce had been investigating him for more than a year.
“The timing of these leaks is clearly designed to do maximum damage to the cardinal and the Catholic Church and undermines the work of the Royal Commission (inquiry),” the statement added.
“It is outrageous that these allegations have been brought to the cardinal’s attention through a media leak.”
The Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, called for Pell to be treated fairly and heard respectfully.
“It is everyone’s right to a fair and transparent process free of particular agendas, other than truth,” Fisher said in a statement.
Fisher was backed by his Brisbane counterpart Mark Coleridge who criticised the “leaked allegations against Cardinal Pell” which he said violated his right to be treated in a just manner, The Australian newspaper reported.