Thursday June 29, 2017

Abuse survivor calls on Pope to make sure Australian cardinal 'faces his accusers'

Peter Saunders, a prominent British member of a papal advisory commission on sexual abuse, credits the 'tenacity' of police and accusers for bringing charges against a top Vatican official.

Peter Saunders, a prominent British member of a papal advisory commission on sexual abuse, credits the 'tenacity' of police and accusers for bringing charges against a top Vatican official. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

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A few years ago, clerical abuse survivor Peter Saunders never would have thought it possible that one of the Pope's closest advisers could be put on trial for sexual abuse.

Cardinal George Pell, 76, was charged Wednesday by Australian police with multiple counts of historical sexual assault offence. He is the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be charged in the church's long-running sexual abuse scandal.

"There was a time I doubted that we would see somebody of the stature and position of Cardinal Pell ... being charged with such serious offences," Saunders told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch.

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Australian Cardinal George Pell makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office, Vatican city on Thursday after being charged with historical sex offences in a case that has rocked the church. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

He credited "the tenacity" of Australian police and the accusers who have come forward with their stories. He said he hopes to see "the trial progress and due process take place."

Saunders is the only remaining survivor sitting on the commission tasked with advising Pope Francis on how to root out sex abuse in the Catholic Church. 

"We'll see whether the Pope will put his money where his mouth is and ensure that George Pell faces his accusers and deals with the matter." - Peter Saunders

Abuse survivor Marie Collins quit the commission in frustration in March, telling As It Happens the Vatican has the same "appalling" attitudes today as it did when she was a child victim.

"That there are still men at that level in the church who would resist or hinder work to protect children in 2017, it's just not acceptable," she said at the time.

Saunders said he agrees with Collins. He is currently on a leave of absence from the commission for publicly speaking out against the Church.

"The Church, the Vatican, the hierarchy do not want people speaking of these things and they certainly don't want us or our friends in the media shining a spotlight on this horrendous, horrendous cancer that has riddled the church," Saunders said.

He said he's been asked to resign, but refuses to do unless the order comes from the Pope himself.

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Victims and relatives of children who claim they were sexually abused by the Catholic Church hold placards as they stand outside the venue for Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse in 2016. (David Gray/Reuters)

Last year, Pell acknowledged during his testimony to the commission that the Catholic Church had made "enormous mistakes" in allowing thousands of children to be raped and molested by priests.

He conceded that he, too, had erred by often believing the priests over victims who alleged abuse. And he vowed to help end a rash of suicides that had plagued abuse victims in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.

But he has vehemently denied the allegations currently against him. 

"I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me," Pell told reporters on Thursday.

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Saunders is calling on the Pope to ensure that Pell, pictured here in 2014, faces his charges in a court of law. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Pell has been ordered to appear in Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18 and Saunders is strongly urging the Vatican to ensure that he does.

"We'll see whether the Pope will put his money where his mouth is and ensure that George Pell faces his accusers and deals with the matter," he said.

"We'll have to wait and see because the Pope has had a lot of things to say about this issue, but saying things and making the right soundbites isn't the same as instituting change and driving abusers out of the Church."

He's also calling on the Church to fully co-operate with the investigation.

"If they were sincere about rooting out the evil of abuse, the Vatican, the leadership, the Pope should have no hesitation whatsoever in co-operating fully with the civil authorities and they have a pretty grim record on that front."

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Peter Saunders, who has been outspokenly critical of the Vatican, is on a leave of absence from the Pope's sexual abuse commission, but he refuses to step down. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Saunders, meanwhile, said he still holds his faith dear, despite his troubled history with the Church.

"I call myself a Catholic because I am a Christian. I attend mass when I am able to, but it's about a relationship I have with God, not with some of the strange men that have inhabited that institution now called the Roman Catholic Church."

With files from Associated Press