The Archbishop of Sydney announced yesterday that he will step aside during an investigation into allegations that he abused a 12-year-old boy while he was a trainee priest.
The Australian church’s standards committee will conduct the inquiry into the complaint against Dr George Pell, Australia’s most prominent Roman Catholic cleric.
The alleged victim says that he was abused by Dr Pell in Melbourne in 1961. The anonymous man has so far refused to go to police, and the accusation will be looked at under the church’s abuse investiga tion system, Towards Healing.
Dr Pell vigorously denied the man’s claims: “The allegations against me are lies and I deny them totally and utterly,” he said in a statement last night. “The alleged events never happened. I repeat, emphatically, that the allegations are false.”
The accusation follows a string of sex abuse scandals involving Australia’s Catholic and Anglican churches. A jubilee visit by the Queen was almost derailed earlier this year following claims that Peter Hollingworth – whose role of governor-general makes him Australia’s de facto head of state – covered up instances of abuse during his 11-year tenure as the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. Mr Hollingworth hotly denied the claims.
More recently the Catholic church has been embroiled in similar scandals, including claims that Dr Pell offered hush money to the families of sex abuse victims. He admitted in June that he had offered A$50,000 (Â£20,000) to the family of two women abused as children by a convicted paedophile, Father Kevin O’Donnell, but maintains that the money was offered simply as compensation.
He also denied statements by an abuse victim, David Ridsdale, who maintains that Dr Pell asked him “what it will take to keep you quiet” when Mr Ridsdale came to him in 1993 with claims against another member of the Catholic clergy.
Dr Pell has been no stranger to controversy. A hardline moral conservative and vociferous opponent of abortion, stem cell research and homosexuality, the Oxbridge-educated cleric became the focus of a wave of protests in recent years at his refusal to give communion to gay and lesbian Catholics.
“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and important consequences follow from this… Homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law; they close the sexual act to the gift of life,” he said in his most recent statement on the issue in May.
In the past week he has also been at the forefront of the campaign to prevent the passage of a parliamentary bill giving the go-ahead to stem cell research.
Despite such strongly held views, Dr Pell has also made a reputation as an ambitious priest, well versed in the business of church politics. He is an acknowledged master at handling the media, and writes a column in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph tabloid.
Marcus Kuczynski, the editor of the Brisbane-based Catholic Leader newspaper, admitted that Dr Pell had made enemies on his way to the top. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people were wanting to discredit him after the hush money allegations were made,” he said.
The Towards Healing system under which he is to be investigated is one that he nearly destroyed during his tenure as the Archbishop of Melbourne.
Two months before it was due to be launched in 1996, Dr Pell announced a rival process for dealing with sex abuse claims, dubbed the Melbourne protocol. Australian bishops wanted to establish a system which could look at allegations across the whole country, but the Melbourne protocol meant that within Dr Pell’s archdiocese only the most senior clerics could be investigated.
The church says that the man who accused Dr Pell of abuse has asked for his claims to be investigated under Towards Healing, rather than the Melbourne protocol.
Accusations of abuse in the Australian Catholic church have not reached the levels seen in America, but since 1996 up to 90 priests have been convicted of sexual abuse and Dr Pell’s Melbourne protocol alone has paid out A$5m (Â£2m) in compensation to victims.