Pope's finance chief George Pell ready to appear at Australia child abuse inquiry

This file photograph taken on April 2, 2015 shows Australian Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See arriving to attend mass for Holy Thursday which marks the start of Easter celebrations at St Peter's basilic
This file photograph taken on April 2, 2015 shows Australian Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See arriving to attend mass for Holy Thursday which marks the start of Easter celebrations at St Peter's basilica on May 21, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Pope Francis’ finance chief said he was willing to give evidence at a child abuse inquiry in his native Australia, as the country’s most notorious paedophile priest gave evidence Wednesday.

Cardinal George Pell – formerly the top Catholic cleric in Australia and now a senior Vatican official – has been accused by a victim of trying to bribe him to keep quiet.

He has also been accused of ignoring complaints and being complicit in moving notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, who appeared at the hearing via videolink from jail, to a different parish.

Pell last week denied the claims in a statement, saying he was horrified by survivors’ accounts of what they suffered at the hands of Ridsdale, whose offences spanned more than three decades from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

During that time Ridsdale abused at least 50 boys as he was moved from parish to parish across Victoria state. Victims have demanded Pell, who was appointed by
Pope Francis in February 2014 to make the Vatican’s finances more transparent, return to give evidence in person and he said he was willing to do so.

“Without wanting to pre-empt the royal commission in any way – you can’t just invite yourself to give evidence,” Pell, who is not accused of child abuse, said in a statement, adding that he wanted to quash speculation he was hiding anything.

“I want to make it absolutely clear that I am willing to give evidence should the commission request this, be it by statement, appearance by video link, or by attending personally.”

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was called after a decade of pressure to investigate wide-ranging allegations of paedophilia in Australia.

It has heard harrowing allegations of child abuse involving places of worship, orphanages, community groups and schools. Pell previously gave evidence in March 2014.

The hearings this week have focused on shocking abuse in the 1970s in the Victoria town of Ballarat and how Ridsdale was able to keep offending there and elsewhere. Now 81 and frail, Ridsdale said he had himself been abused as a youngster.

He added that he routinely went to confession over the decades he was a priest but claimed not to have told anyone about the abuse he was committing.

“I didn’t confess the sexual offending against children,” he said. “Looking back on it, I think that the overriding fear would have been losing priesthood.” Ridsdale has been convicted in four separate court cases of abusing more than 50 children and will be eligible for parole in 2019.

In his statement Thursday Pell, who supported Ridsdale in court in 1993 when he admitted widespread abuse, said he was “deeply saddened by the way church authorities have failed in responding to these crimes”.