The Catholic Church in Australia was embroiled in a child sex scandal Friday after its most senior clergyman denied offering bribes to cover up abuse allegations against a priest.
The bribery allegation came amid a crisis that has shaken the church in the United States, with revelations that priests across the country abused children sexually and that senior clergy tried to conceal incidents by moving known offenders to other parishes.
Sydney Catholic Archbishop George Pell told a news conference Thursday that a television news program to be aired this weekend alleges that he tried to cover up sex abuse claims made against a priest in 1993 by offering the victim financial assistance in return for his silence.
He denied the charge and said that he was misled by the producers of the program — the Nine Network’s “60 Minutes” — about the reason for the interview.
“The allegations that I made such attempts or offers are not only unfounded but also implausible,” he said.
Pell said that he had agreed to be interviewed “to discuss matters arising out of the American cardinals meeting in Rome,” referring to an extraordinary gathering at the Vatican (news – web sites) last month between Pope John Paul (news – web sites) II and American cardinals and bishops to discuss matters including the U.S. child abuse allegations.
According to the archbishop, a segment of the “60 Minutes” program to be broadcast Sunday reports that he was told in 1993 of abuse by a priest who pleaded guilty a year later to sexually assaulting 21 children — mostly altar boys and including his nephew — in one of Australia’s most notorious pedophile scandals. The program says that the case was brought to Pell’s attention by the nephew.
Pell told reporters that he had been contacted by the priest’s nephew about the abuse but said that their phone conversation took place after the priest, Gerald Ridsdale, had already been charged with child sex offenses. Ridsdale pleaded guilty in 1994 to 46 sexual assault charges and was sentenced to a minimum of 15 years in prison.
He also denied an allegation by the program that he asked the priest’s nephew, David Ridsdale, what it would take “to keep you quiet” and went on to offer him a car or house.
“I had no authority to respond to any allegations against Ridsdale,” said Pell, who was a bishop in the eastern city of Melbourne at the time.
The church leader said that he was seeking advice about whether to take legal action against the program’s producers.
John Westacott, executive producer of “60 Minutes,” said that he had fully briefed Pell of the allegations before the interview.
“I’m not here to prosecute the Catholic Church; we’ve got the story of … people that were treated, have been treated, are being treated extremely badly,” Westacott told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio Friday. “It seems to me that the politics and legal requirements have been put well and truly above common decency.”