VATICAN CITY — The Vatican's new No. 3 accused Holy See officials Monday of downplaying the clerical sex abuse scandal in the 1990s, saying they were generally skeptical of victims and often considered them "enemies of the church" out for political gain.
Cardinal George Pell made the comments while testifying before Australia's federal inquiry into allegations of child sex abuse in state and religious institutions. Next week he takes up his new job in Rome as prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat of the Economy, Pope Francis' new finance ministry.
Pell, the outgoing archbishop of Sydney, said the Australian church by 1995 was far ahead of the Vatican in recognizing the scale of the problem, though he acknowledged that even in 2007 "mistakes were made by me and others." He was referring to the notorious case of John Ellis, an altar boy abused by a priest in the 1970s who sued the church in 2007 but lost — following a vigorous defense by Pell's lawyers — when the court ruled Australia's church couldn't be sued as an entity.
While praising his own response, Pell directed some blame to Rome.
"The attitude of some people in the Vatican was that if accusations were being made against priests, they were made exclusively or at least predominantly by enemies of the church to make trouble and therefore they should be dealt with skeptically," he said.
Only later, when a delegation of U.S. bishops impressed on Pope John Paul II and his advisers that the accusations were legitimate did things begin to change, he said.
The American bishops, Pell said, "explained vigorously to the Vatican that it wasn't just the enemies of the church who were doing this for some political purpose, as the Nazis had done and possibly the communists, but that in fact there were genuine complaints, and good people — people who loved the church — were saying that it's not being dealt with well enough."
His comment was an apparent reference to suggestions that John Paul believed victims' accusations to be trumped up, based on his experience as a priest in Nazi and communist Poland, where priests were often defamed for political reasons.