Australia's top-ranking Catholic has admitted to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry that some members of the Church tried to cover up child sexual abuse by other members of the clergy.

Cardinal George Pell told the inquiry he was "fully apologetic and absolutely sorry" about decades of child sex abuse within the Church.

Some members of the packed public gallery wept as Cardinal Pell was forced to answer questions about the Church's systemic cover-up of cases of rape of children as young as five-years old.

"I'm certainly totally committed to improving the situation. I know the Holy Father is too," he told the inquiry.

Despite being heckled during parts of the inquiry, Cardinal Pell defended the action the Church had taken action to tackle abuse.

"Many people in the public think not only were there many mistakes made a long time ago, but there's been no progress at all over the last 20 years," he said.

"I don't think that's borne out by the facts of the case. But that's for people to judge."

Cardinal Pell says he recently learned that former Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns had destroyed documents to hide cases of abuse and he admitted that in some cases members of the clergy were placed above the law.

But he denies paying lip service to victims of Church abuse and only saying sorry because he was caught out.

"I have already stated quite explicitly, acknowledged the errors that have been made by Bishop Mulkearns and [former Melbourne archbishop Frank Little]," he said.

He says while there have been some cases of cover-ups, the main problem is that many within the Church did not talk about the problem of child sex abuse because they were not "gossips".

"I think many persons in the leadership of the Church, I don't think they knew what a horrendous widespread [issue] we were sitting on," he said.

Solidarity with 'the lowest of the low'

He was questioned about his support for former priest and one of Australia's worst paedophiles Gerald Ridsdale.

In 1993 Ridsdale pleaded guilty to 30 charges relating to sexual offences committed against nine boys aged between 12 and 16.

Cardinal Pell denies knowledge of the "extent" of Ridsdale's "career".

He defended his solidarity towards Ridsdale, who he lived with for 12 months and who he accompanied to court when he pleaded guilty to child sex offences.

"I felt there was something in the gospels where Christ speaks about being with the lowest of the low. As an expression of solidarity, I gave that limited support," he said.

"I had a principle that any time I was asked to go to court on behalf of one of my parishioners I generally did and I always said, 'I'm here just to say that there is a good side to this person and I support them to the extent that is compatible with justice'.

"I certainly never intended to... aid and abet or to dodge the issues."

He says he did not realise the insult this would be to the victims.

Fears of 'bleeding the Church dry'

Cardinal Pell has been questioned extensively on the issue of compensation for victims of Church abuse and over claims he thought it could "bleed the Church dry".

But he says he has only tried to be prudent with the Church's funds.

He was asked how he is able to stay in a $30 million "palace" in Rome, when Australian victims of abuse are limited to just $75,000 in compensation.

Parliamentary secretary Andrea Coote suggested the Church sell off the Italian property so it could afford more generous compensation, but Cardinal Pell says the Church did not need to do that.

"It is not a palace. It is not my home. I have two nice rooms there which I'm very happy about. Which I use as a base when I'm in Rome. It is a hostel for pilgrims," he said.

"It's an investment there. We don't need to sell investments at the moment to pay our damages and whatever damages compensation there are, we'll be fully able to do so."

In the United States, Church abuse victims can typically receive around $1 million in compensation, but Cardinal Pell says the huge differences between the US and Australia is because America is a litigious society where they pay a much higher rate.

When asked if he thought $75,000 was an appropriate sum for people who had been anally and orally raped by priests when they were children, Cardinal Pell says the Church pays what the Government recommends.

"Many of the victims aren't particularly interested in money. The more important thing is due process, justice, and help with getting on with their lives," he said.

Daughters repeatedly raped by priest

Cardinal Pell was pressed over the way he personally dealt with cases of abuse, in particularly that of the Foster family, whose two daughters were repeatedly raped by Melbourne priest Kevin O'Donnell from when they were as young as five years old.

One of the daughters died of a medication overdose in 2008 at the age of 26, while the other daughter became a binge drinker and is now mentally and physically disabled.

The father, Anthony Foster, has said that when he met with Cardinal Pell to air his concerns, he showed a "sociopathic lack of empathy" towards the case of his daughters.

The Fosters have since received a $750,000 payout after going to court to seek compensation.

Cardinal Pell called the meeting "unfortunate".

"The Church paid out $100,000 for counselling for the Fosters, and that was money well spent," Cardinal Pell said.

Church screening processes were 'far too loose'

Cardinal Pell says he thinks there are several factors that could contribute to the high levels of abuse seen in the Victorian Catholic Church.

Priests' celibacy and the high number of children being dealt with by the institution are both factors, he said.

"Also... the entry procedures, the criteria, the searching, the investigation of candidates back say in the middle of last century was much too loose."

Cardinal Pell told the inquiry the Church has been the victim of years of "intermittent hostility from the press" but he says this has helped uncover some of the Church's failings

Cardinal Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne between 1996 and 2001.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Catholic Church said at least 620 Victorian children had been abused by its clergy in the past 80 years.

Cardinal Pell is appearing on the final day of public hearings for the inquiry into the sexual abuse of children by members of non-government organisations.

A large overflow room was set up to accommodate the large crowds but at least 20 people have been forced to wait outside, sparking heated scenes and clashes in the corridor.

Victims and members of support groups are being forced to stand along the walls of the spillover room, which quickly reached capacity.

Earlier today, Premier Denis Napthine said Cardinal Pell needed to be upfront about the church's failings in its handling of abuse allegations and paedophile clergy.

"I think there is an opportunity here for Cardinal Pell to be open with the people of Victoria and Australia, I think he should be fully apologetic, should be absolutely sorry about what has occurred in the Catholic Church," he said.

"I think it's time for George Pell, on behalf of the Catholic Church, to be open and frank, not only with the inquiry, but also with the people of Victoria and Australia."

 

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