Canberra — Interrupted by jeers from observers, one of Pope Francis' top advisers on Tuesday denied an accusation that his testimony to an inquiry into child sex abuse was an attempt to deflect blame for the Catholic Church transferring Australia's worst pedophile priest from parish to parish.
Australian Cardinal George Pell was a priest in the 1970s in the town of Ballarat where he advised Bishop Ronald Mulkearns about the placement of priests within the diocese.
Pell, now the pope's top financial adviser, told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that he had no idea that priest Gerald Ridsdale was repeatedly transferred by the bishop for more than a decade because of pedophile accusations.
Pell rejected an accusation made by the lead counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, that his answers were designed to remove his own responsibility for Ridsdale's crimes.
"My answers were designed to answer your questions accurately and completely," Pell told the Sydney inquiry via videolink from a Rome hotel.
Asked if he accepted any responsibility of Ridsdale's repeated transfers within the Ballarat diocese, Pell replied: "No, I don't."
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 a Melbourne auxiliary bishop.
Tuesday was the second day of evidence for the 74-year-old cleric, who because of ill health could not travel to Australia to give evidence in person at the inquiry into decades of child abuse.
On Monday, Pell dubbed Mulkearns' handling of Ridsdale a "catastrophe for the church." He said Mulkearns was a prime candidate for the Vatican's proposed tribunal for negligent bishops, although there is no indication the elderly Mulkearns would stand trial by the time the tribunal is operational.
Commission chairman Peter McClellan asked Pell on Tuesday whether it was surprising that he hadn't heard rumors about the scandal Ridsdale had created in the diocese.
"Not necessarily, given the work I was doing," Pell said. "I wasn't working full-time in the diocese."
Furness said that as an adviser to the bishop — one of a group of Ballarat priests known as the College of Consultors — Pell should have questioned why Ridsdale was frequently transferred.
"I was happy to take the bishop's word that it was appropriate for him to be shifted," Pell said.
"Gentle and euphemistic language ... was regularly used by Bishop Mulkearns on these occasions, so that some of us were kept in the dark," he said.
Pell accompanied Ridsdale to court in 1993 when the pedophile faced his first child molesting charges. He was convicted in 1993, 2006 and 2013 with sexually abusing more than 50 children.
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Pell told the royal commission said Mulkearns' refusal to act on the allegations against Ridsdale was extraordinary.
"Unfortunately, I would have to say that I can't nominate another bishop whose actions are so grave and inexplicable," Pell said.
Pell agreed with McClellan that even if a priest did not have a legal responsibility to stop Ridsdale's crimes, a priest would have a moral responsibility to do whatever he could to prevent such abuses.
"I think that is a reasonable proposition," Pell said.
The Royal Commission in December accepted medical advice that 85-year-old Mulkearns was dying and was unfit to testify. He was Ballarat's bishop from 1971 until he retired in 1997.
The bishop's former adviser, priest John McKinnon, told the Royal Commission in December that Mulkearns was "profoundly sorry" for relocating suspected pedophile priests, but could no longer remember details.
Ballarat, Pell's hometown, has been devastated by disclosures about the huge number of abuse victims, scores of whom killed themselves in a cluster of abuse-related suicides.
Two dozen Australian abuse survivors 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.
Pell said priests didn't discuss with him the allegations against Ridsdale.
Pell's testimony was interrupted by jeers from the public gallery as he explained the moral framework in which priests live.
"We work within a framework of Christian moral teaching, or certainly we should, and discussion of the secret faults of others is not encouraged," Pell said.
Furness told Pell that Ridsdale's crimes were not "secret," since they were common knowledge in the towns of Apollo Bay and Inglewood where Ridsdale had been the parish priest and police had reported their suspicions to the church.
Pell said he had not known the sexual abuse was common knowledge in Inglewood.
"I didn't know whether it was common knowledge or whether it wasn't. It's a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me," Pell said, bringing audible gasps and jeers from the public gallery.
Andrew Collins, a clergy abuse victim from Ballarat, said outside the Rome hotel that he found Pell's denials of any knowledge of pedophilia allegations against Ridsdale " absolutely unbelievable."
"He's always been seen as an ambitious man and ambitious people have knowledge. They crave knowledge," Collins told reporters.
"They know everything that's going on and he wouldn't be in the position he was today if he was the sort of person who sat back and didn't pay attention to what was going on," he added.
Before Pell's testimony on Tuesday, he told reporters: "I've got the full backing of the pope."
The Vatican said a private audience Pell had with the pope on Monday was a long-scheduled appointment related to Pell's duties as Holy See finance minister, and had nothing to do with the abuse hearings.
Pell will testify for a third four-hour session late on Tuesday Rome time.