Sydney, Australia – Sitting alone on a bench in Sydney’s busy financial district, Darren Chalmers is surrounded by dozens of placards condemning the Roman Catholic Church’s response to child sex abuse victims like himself.
Inside the building behind him, around 50 people, including a dozen victims, watch one of the Vatican’s most powerful clergymen, Cardinal George Pell, testify, via a videolink from a hotel in Rome, as to what he knew about decades of sexual abuse within the church.
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Over four days of hearings for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, 48-year-old Chalmers, who was sexually abused at the age of 14 at a boy’s home in Melbourne, sat outside with signs, some which read “Pell go to hell” and “Pope Sack Pell Now”. He wasn’t able to bring himself to join the other victims inside the hearing.
“Being in there feels too uncomfortable, it brings back memories of things I try and forget. But sitting out here, I do feel proud, people see me and I’m helping myself and other victims who can’t be here,” Chalmers told Al Jazeera.
After he swore on the Bible on Monday, Pell’s gruelling questioning lasted almost 20 hours over the four days and focused on what he knew about sexual abuse in his small hometown of Ballart and in the city of Melbourne between the 1970s and 1990s as he rose in the Catholic Church hierarchy.
During that time many priests who were sexually abusing children were moved from parish to parish and not referred to police.
The former Archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, once considered a contender for pope, moved to the Vatican in 2014 after he was tasked by Pope Francis with cleaning up the Catholic Church’s finances as secretariat for the economy. He is effectively the treasurer and many regard him as the third most powerful person in the church.
This makes him the highest-ranking official to ever face an inquiry into the Church’s response to sexual abuse.
The Royal Commission has been running since 2012 and has heard from almost 5,000 victims, according to its chair, Justice Peter McClellan. Pell himself has previously testified to the inquiry twice before, but was called back after allegations emerged last year that senior clergy officials, including those working with Pell, moved priests from parish to parish when they knew they were abusing children.
Seventy-four-year-old Pell was meant to come to Sydney to testify but his lawyers said he was unable to make the long journey from Rome owing to ill health, a move that angered victims.
The inquiry only had local media coverage, but it gained international attention after a radio station set up a crowd-funding campaign which raised more than $150,000 to send 10 survivors of abuse along with five support staff to Rome to watch Pell testify in person. The campaign was helped along by comedian-musician Tim Minchin, who released a song mocking Pell’s decision not to return.
“Part of me wanted to not go, forget about it, but another part of me understood how important it would be to be in that room, to bear witness,” Peter Blenkiron, who was abused at the age of 11 by a Christian Brother at his school in Ballarat, told Al Jazeera.
Now 53, Blenkiron says he has had a lifelong struggle with his mental health and has been unable to hold down a steady job. He says making sure that abuse never happens to his two children is why he continuously speaks out about his experience.
“We are just a group of damaged men who want to make sure this never, ever happens again. I do believe healing is possible through all this, for ourselves and the community,” said Blenkiron, who wore a shirt with a picture of his 11-year-old self on it at the hearing in Rome.
During the long hearings which ran late into the early hours of the morning Rome time, Pell repeatedly denied knowing anything in the 1970s about the abuses of various priests, including the notorious Father Gerald Ridsdale.
Ridsdale, who was a decade later convicted of 138 offences against 53 victims, was moved from parish to parish after parents complained to a senior bishop to whom Pell was an adviser at the time.
When Ridsdale eventually faced court for paedophilia charges in 1993, Pell, then a senior clergyman, accompanied him to court in support, something Pell acknowledged to the inquiry was “a mistake”.
Pell also denied the accusation claims from Ridsdale’s nephew David, who was abused by his uncle, that Pell had tried to bribe him to remain quiet. Pell said that while he had heard rumours of the abuse as early as the 1970s it was not the responsibility of his job at the time to investigate further.
Pell repeatedly said he couldn’t remember certain details of conversations about various priests abusing and said that others in the clergy deceived him by not telling him about the paedophilic behaviour of some priests, which was widely known. Counsel assisting the inquiry Gail Furness told Pell she thought his claim to ignorance was “implausible”.
“We are sick of the lies.He keeps saying everyone else is covering up, but he is the one covering it up now. He needs to stop the charade and show some compassion,” Leonie Sheedy, whose brother was abused by a Christian Brother at a boy’s home, told Al Jazeera in Sydney during an interval in the testimony.
Pell also struck a conciliatory tone and said the Church had too often dismissed the claims of victims.
“I’m not here to defend the indefensible. 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,” he told the inquiry.
Past 3am in Rome on Thursday, Pell answered the inquiry’s final questions, briefly spoke to the gathering reporters and left.
Months from now the inquiry will deliver all its findings, including as to Pell’s culpability in the moving of priests and the cover-up of abuse. There has been some suggestions that a negative finding against him may make his job at the Vatican untenable.
In Sydney it was early afternoon when the inquiry ended. Darren still sat on the bench, hand over a placard, eyes squinting under a hat to keep the harsh sun off his face as he watched the foot traffic rush by.
You can follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter @JarniBlakkarly