By Philip Pullella and Jane Wardell
ROME/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify on systemic sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, said on Monday that he has the full backing of Pope Francis.
Pell on Sunday told Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse that the church made "enormous mistakes" and "catastrophic" choices by attempting to cover up abuses in the 1970s.
Pell's testimony has received global coverage. Because of his high position in the Vatican, the Australian inquiry into sexual abuse cases that occurred decades ago has taken on wider implications about the accountability of church leaders.
Pell, 74, has become the focal point for victims' frustration over what they say has been an inadequate response from church leaders. Pell himself is not accused of sexual abuse and has twice apologized for the Church's slow response.
"I have the full backing of the pope," Pell told reporters as he arrived at Rome's Hotel Quirinale to give evidence in front of former abuse victims who traveled to Italy for the late night sessions.
In his position as Vatican treasurer, Pell met with Pope Francis for a routine meeting earlier on Monday, after telling the inquiry he was "not here to defend the indefensible."
He said was aware of rumors and complaints against pedophile clergy when he was a young priest in the 1970s, but that Church superiors tended to give priests the benefit of the doubt, something he acknowledged was wrong.
Pell said children were often not believed, abusive priests were shuffled from parish to parish and the Church was over-reliant on the use of counseling of priests to prevent further abuses.
The strong language was welcomed by former victims, but Pell's failing memory on specifics angered witnesses in Rome and Sydney. He repeatedly said he could not recall specific incidents when he was asked about them.
Special prosecutor Gail Furness quizzed Pell via video link from Sydney on Monday. There were audible gasps as the Cardinal said he was deceived by Church leaders who did not inform him about claims against Father Gerald Ridsdale among others.
Ridsdale, who was repeatedly moved from parish to parish, was later convicted of 138 offences against 53 victims.
Ridsdale's nephew, David Ridsdale, was among 15 abuse victims and supporters who traveled to Rome on the back of a crowd-funding campaign to see Pell give evidence after he said he was unable to travel to his native Australia because of heart problems.
Last year, Pell denied accusations made at Commission hearings that he had tried to bribe a victim to remain quiet, that he ignored another complaint and that he was complicit in the transfer of a pedophile priest.
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that U.S. bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar scandals have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.
The hearing started on the same night that Spotlight, a film about newspaper reporters who uncovered systemic paedophilia in the Church in Boston, won the Academy Award for best picture.
The Vatican newspaper dedicated two articles to the win, saying Spotlight was not an anti-Catholic film as some have claimed.
"The ogres were not exclusively men in cassocks. Paedophilia does not necessarily derive from a vow of chastity," the newspaper said. "But it is by now clear that there were too many people in the Church who were more worried about the image of the institution than the gravity of the act."
(Editing by David Gregorio)