Just moments before Spotlight producer Michael Sugar gave an impassioned plea for the powerful exposé of rampant sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests to “resonate all the way to the Vatican,” one of the Catholic Church’s most senior figures admitted in testimony that the church had “made enormous mistakes.”
Australian Cardinal George Pell, a close adviser to Pope Francis and the Church’s Secretariat for the Economy — reputedly the second-most powerful position in Rome — was giving evidence in a courtroom Monday morning to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The proceedings addressed the accusations of crimes committed in the town of Ballarat, where Pell was a priest.
“I’m not here to defend the indefensible,” Pell said via video link from Rome. “The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the Church in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has let people down.”
Although Pell is not under investigation or suspicion himself, he has come under fire for what critics have described as a systematic cover-up by the Church’s hierarchy to protect the criminal priests. Pell was known to have served as a consultant to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who later was found to have moved Australia’s most notorious abusive priest, Gerald Ridsale, from parish to parish for many years. Ridsale ultimately was convicted of 138 offenses against 53 victims.
“I have just re-read the file of Ridsdale, the priest — ex-priest — and the way he was dealt with was a catastrophe,” said Pell, who also admitted, “I must say, in those days, if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial.”
Pell’s testimony, and the horrific acts of abuse against children laid out so chillingly by the prosecution, do give Michael Sugar’s speech — and Spotlight in general — even more urgency and relevance. Earlier on Sunday, Spotlight co-star Mark Ruffalo attended a sexual abuse protest outside Los Angeles Cathedral, along with the film’s director/ co-scribes Tom McCarthy and co-scribe Josh Singer, organized by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Hours later, they would be celebrating an upset victory at the Oscars that stands to give a powerful voice to those looked over for so long.