‘We spoke in front of the world’ – abuse victims in Rome to see George Pell testify

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Fifteen survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in Australia have come a long way to be in the room when the cardinal is asked what he knew

It was not easy for Paul Levey to make it to Rome today to watch one of the most senior officials in the Catholic church, Cardinal George Pell, face questions about what he knew about rampant sexual abuse in his former diocese in Australia.
The 47-year-old, who was sexually abused more than three decades ago by one of the most notorious pedophile priests in the church’s recorded history, needed doctors’ notes, an ultrasound for his leg, and even began taking blood thinners to prepare himself for the nearly 16,000km (10,000-mile) journey from Melbourne to Italy, with a 48-hour stopover in Abu Dhabi that was required on doctors orders because of a severe leg injury that requires him to walk with a cane. But he did it.

“It is important for us to sit in a room and see him testify. We all testified in a public arena and we didn’t think it was fair that he would be sitting in the Vatican and testify by video link, practically in his lounge room,” Levey said.

“We spoke in front of the world [when we testified], really, so we believe he should feel a little bit of that pressure,” he said.

The Hotel Quirinale in Rome where Cardinal George Pell is giving evidence via video link to the child abuse royal commission sitting in Sydney. Photograph: Lloyd Jones/AAP
It is Saturday night in the Eternal City and Levey and his partner, Michelle, are getting ready to meet the rest of the roughly 15 abuse survivors who have come from Australia. Some Levey has not seen since he was 12 years old.

All have made the long journey after Pell, the third most senior official in the Vatican and the man who Pope Francis appointed to clean-up the Vatican’s vast and murky finances, said that heart problems would prevent him from flying to Australia to testify in-person before a special commission in Australia that is investigating the church’s response to decades of clerical sex abuse.

The royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse was established by the Australian government in 2013. It has heard from dozens of witnesses about clerical sex abuse, among other institutions.

Pell has already testified twice before the commission, but survivor advocates believe this is the first time the cardinal – who will testify from 10pm to 2am at the Hotel Quirinale in central Rome for three to four days beginning on Sunday – could face tough questioning about the early years of his career, when he was a priest in Ballarat and auxiliary bishop in Melbourne.

Pell has long emphatically denied that he ever knew about pedophile priests who were moved from parish to parish after their abuse was discovered even though he sat on a college of consultors that had meetings about priest appointments. He has also denied having any authority over such decisions.

One of the priests who was repeatedly moved was Father Gerald Ridsdale who began raping children almost from the moment he left the seminary and is currently in jail. One of his victims was Paul Levey.

It was not until Risdale was charged with sex offenses against other minors, when Levey was in his early 20s, that he came forward about the abuse. He has struggled in the past, he said, with substance abuse and suicide attempts.

Paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, giving evidence via video link from jail about abuse in Ballarat. Photograph: Royal Commission/AFP/Getty Images
“Back then it was very sterile. Not many men were coming forward,” he said.

Like other abuse survivors, Levey wants the church to be accountable for turning a blind eye to abuse – a practice that has been established by clerical abuse scandals around the world – and he wants the church to report abuse as soon as it becomes aware of it.

“We want the hierarchy that were in charge to be held accountable for aiding and abetting a pedophile, really,” he said.

“If I was the pope I would put Pell on a plane, first class, and say ‘sort it out. Go through the process and prove you are innocent. Don’t hide in the Vatican,’” he said.

Levey also wants the church to offer counseling to survivors, who in some cases still have to wait weeks before they get access to professional support.

Even today, he pointed out, the majority of counseling and other support for abuse survivors is geared predominantly to women. That is one of the areas Levey hopes might change.

“How many blokes do you know who would call a woman’s hospital and ask to speak to a sexual abuse counsellor?” he said.
Levey said that, as a survivor, he was offered ten free counseling sessions by the church and another ten through the health service, but then feared he would have to start paying for his own sessions. He learned only “practically by accident” that, as a survivor of abuse that occurred in the Ballarat diocese, he was eligible for more. Yes Levey is bewildered by the fact that survivors from other diocese have no such access to counseling.

Levey said his solicitors have reached out to Pell and that the cardinal has agreed to meet him on Thursday afternoon. While Levey talks about his ups and his downs, he said he senses a change in himself, and it has come from his conversations with other survivors.

“The media sometimes ask survivors for pictures they have of themselves when we were kids. And none of us do, they were all destroyed,” he said. But now, he is starting to remember good times he had as a child, a period that for so long was overshadowed by the terrifying things that happened to him.

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome, THE GUARDIAN
Sunday 28 February 2016 01.21 GMT Last modified on Sunday 28 February 2016 19.31 GMT