CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The lawyer for an Australian inquiry into child sex abuse suggested on Wednesday that one of Pope Francis' top advisers was lying when he denied knowledge of criminal allegations swirling around two notorious pedophile priests decades ago.
Australian Cardinal George Pell insisted he was telling the truth, testifying to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that he had changed a culture of "crimes and cover-ups" within the Catholic Church.
Pell, the pope's chief financial adviser, told the royal commission in three days of evidence this week that he was deceived twice by church authorities about child abuse allegations against priests Gerald Ridsdale and Peter Searson.
Pell said that as an assistant priest in the Australian city of Ballarat in the 1970s, Bishop Ronald Mulkearns had not told him that Ridsdale was repeatedly moved within the diocese because of pedophilia allegations.
Pell also said that as an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne in the early 1990s, the Catholic Education Office and Archbishop Frank Little had concealed from him accusations of pedophilia against Searson.
"It's a mystery, but in both cases for some reason, they were covering up," Pell told the inquiry in Sydney via videolink from a Rome hotel.
Commission chairman Peter McClellan told Pell that his evidence of a Catholic Education Office cover-up "makes no sense at all," because the office reported complaints about priests to the archbishop and vicar general.
The lead counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, told Pell the same evidence was "completely implausible."
Pell's evidence that he was deceived by church authorities in both Ballarat and Melbourne was an "extraordinary position," Furness said.
"Counsel, this was an extraordinary world. A world of crimes and cover-ups and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed," Pell said.
"I not only disturbed the status quo, but when I became archbishop, I turned the situation right around so that the Melbourne Response procedures were light years ahead of all this obfuscation and prevarication and deception," he added, referring a program he initiated in 1996 to pay compensation to clergy-abuse victims.
Pell suspected church authorities kept him in the dark "because they would have feared that I would not accept the status quo."
"They realized very clearly I was not cut from the same cloth," Pell said.
"They might not have been certain I would take decisive action, but they would have been fearful that I would and pretty certain that I would have asked all sorts of inconvenient questions if I'd been better briefed," he said.
Furness put to Pell that he had known about allegations against Ridsdale and that he had been properly briefed by the Catholic Education Office about allegations against Searson. Pell denied both propositions.
Furness accuses the 74-year-old cleric of denying knowledge about the pedophiles as an explanation for his lack of action.
The royal commission — which is Australia's highest form of investigation — is investigating how Pell dealt with abuse allegations as a priest, educator and adviser to Mulkearns, as well as how the Melbourne archdiocese responded to allegations of abuse, including when Pell served as auxiliary bishop.
Mulkearns is dying and is too ill to testify to the royal commission. Little died in 2008.
Ridsdale is in prison on convictions of abusing more than 50 children. The church substantiated four complaints of child sexual abuse against Searson, who died in 2009.
Pell said he accepted that there had been failure of process in handling complaints against Searson.
Pell said he was only "tangentially, marginally" responsible for that failure "because as an auxiliary, you are not part of the official procedures."
"I regret that, even at this stage, I wasn't a bit more vigorous in my questioning or commenting," Pell said.
Wednesday was Pell's third day of testifying to the inquiry, which is investigating decades of abuse within churches and a variety of other organizations.
Two dozen Australian abuse victims and their companions traveled across the globe to witness Pell's testimony in a hotel conference room, a significant show of accountability in the church's long-running abuse saga.
"George Pell has consistently pointed the blame elsewhere, accused everybody of being a liar and deceit. If he is telling the truth, that would make him an extraordinarily ignorant man," David Ridsdale, who was abused for years by his uncle Gerald Ridsdale, told reporters outside the hearing in Rome.
The victims said Wednesday that they had requested a meeting with the pope before they return to Australia on Friday.
Pell will testify for a fourth day on Thursday.