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09 December 2015 09:43 by Mark Brolly

Paedophile priests working at dioceses across Australia were recognised as ticking “time bombs” at a 1992 meeting of a special bishops’ committee, the chairman of that committee told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, at which Cardinal George Pell (pictured) is to make his third appearance next week.

Bishop Peter Connors, then an auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Sir Frank Little of Melbourne and later Bishop of Ballarat, was asked by Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission, Ms Gail Furness, about minutes of the Special Issues Committee of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference on 16 November 1992 referring to “serious ‘time bombs’ ticking away in a number of dioceses”.

“The reference to ‘time bombs’ can only be understood as a reference to dioceses where there were priests operating who had had serious allegations against them, or [where] the church had accepted were sexual offenders?” Ms Furness asked.

“That would certainly be the case. I think particularly in the Diocese of Ballarat, a big time bomb was ticking away there,” Bishop Connors replied.

The Commission’s Chair, Mr Justice Peter McClellan, asked about the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

“I expect that would have been the case at that stage because 1993 particularly, [Vicar-General] Monsignor [Gerry] Cudmore was dealing with lots of cases,” Bishop Connors said.

Another former Melbourne auxiliary, Bishop Hilton Deakin, said Archbishop Little feared the reach of Canon Law, that if a priest was found guilty, he would appeal to Rome “and the Roman authorities, knowing in the most limited way what they knew about this sort of thing, would find in favour of the priest and against the bishop”.

Bishop Deakin acknowledged he felt a conflict between his moral and ethical duty as a priest to act on child sex abuse and his duty to serve his archbishop.

Archbishop Little led the Melbourne church from 1974 until 1996, when he was replaced by then Bishop Pell, who had been an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne for nine years.

Sir Frank died in 2008, while Archbishop Pell became Archbishop of Sydney in 2001, a cardinal in 2003 and the first Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy early last year.

Cardinal Pell and the Archdiocese of Melbourne defended themselves against weekend media reports that the Melbourne Response, set up by the Cardinal in 1996 as the protocol for the archdiocese for dealing with claims of sexual abuse against church personnel, was a “sham” and an attempt to silence victims and minimise compensation payments.

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Ballarat-born Cardinal Pell is due to give evidence in Melbourne for up to three days from 16 December on the responses of church authorities to allegations of child sexual abuse against Catholic clergy associated with Holy Family Parish and Primary School in the Melbourne suburb of Doveton, the response of the Archdiocese of Melbourne to allegations of child sexual abuse against several other Catholic clergy and the response of church authorities in the Victorian Diocese of Ballarat and police to allegations of child sexual abuse against Catholic priests and religious.

The cardinal’s evidence is due to conclude a four-week block of hearings into the responses of the Church in Melbourne and Ballarat, both in the State of Victoria, to child sexual abuse.

Ms Furness said on 7 December that the second stage of the Ballarat hearings, first held in May, was primarily concerned with the knowledge of the bishop and priests in the Ballarat diocese of allegations of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and religious and the response of the diocese to such allegations, “including the movement of priests from one parish to another”.

Cardinal Pell’s counsel was expected to cross-examine several survivors who gave evidence at the earlier hearing, including Mr David Ridsdale, a survivor of abuse by his uncle, imprisoned former priest Gerald Ridsdale.

Between January 1980 and 28 February 2015, 140 people made a claim of child sexual abuse against priests and religious operating in the Ballarat diocese, most of which related to the 1970s, as in Melbourne.

Eighty-six claims resulted in monetary compensation that, when treatment, legal and other costs were considered, totalled nearly $5 million (£2.4 million). The highest number of claims of child sexual abuse relating to an individual priest, Ridsdale, was 78.

Ms Furness said the Commission had received and accepted medical advice that 85-year-old Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who was Bishop of Ballarat from 1971-97, was receiving palliative care and was unfit to give evidence.

“Bishop Mulkearns remains subject to a summons to appear before the Commission and, should his health improve sufficiently, the Royal Commission intends to call him to give evidence in public,” she said.

Ms Furness said the Royal Commission would return to Ballarat in February 2016, mainly to examine the knowledge of the Christian Brothers in Ballarat of allegations of child sexual abuse by religious.