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ROME — A senior Vatican official came face to face with survivors of Catholic Church sexual abuse Thursday, describing the meeting as “hard” and “emotional.”
Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican's treasurer, admitted to the group that “evil” had been done in the parish where he worked decades ago.
The encounter took place in Rome where Pell has been giving evidence via video link to Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse.
Earlier, the testified that he did nothing when a boy at a Christian Brothers school in Australia’s rural Victoria state mentioned the abuse "casually in conversation" in the mid-1970s.
"With the experience of 40 years later, certainly I would agree that I should have done more," Pell said.
Pell does not face any charges but his four days of testimony over cases involving hundreds of children in Australia from the 1960s to the 1990s has taken on wider implications about the accountability of church leaders.
There were audible gasps when, during a testy exchange earlier in the week, Pell said of abuse by a priest who was later convicted of 138 offences against 53 victims: "It's a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me." Pell later said he regretted the comment as “badly expressed.”
Pell's failing memories of what he knew about many individual cases has angered many of the 15 abuse victims and supporters who traveled to Rome to watch him give evidence.
He said he met with “about a dozen” of them Thursday. “I have heard each of their stories, and their suffering,” he said in a statement. “It was hard…an honest and emotional meeting.”
Pell mentioned “the goodness of so many people” in the parish of Ballarat, near Melbourne, where much of the abuse had taken place, adding that the goodness “was not extinguished by the evil that was done.”
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was revealed that U.S. bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar cover-ups have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.
Pell has told the Australian inquiry this week that the church made "enormous mistakes" and "catastrophic" choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and over-relying on counseling of priests to solve the problem.
He also said he was deceived and lied to by superiors as a young priest in the 1970s. He denied that, as a bishop in the 1990s, he tried to bribe one victim to remain silent and that he ignored complaints, or that he was complicit in the transfer of a pedophile priest.