Anthony and Chrissie Foster, whose daughters Emma and Katie were sexually assaulted by a Catholic priest, say Cardinal George Pell has shifted ground from completely denying knowledge of pedophile activity when he served in Ballarat.
They are in Rome to watch the former top-ranked Australian Catholic give evidence at the Quirinale Hotel via videolink to the child abuse royal commission sitting in Sydney.
The Melbourne couple have seen Cardinal Pell give evidence at previous commission hearings and are keen to see him grilled over his knowledge of child abuse by priests in Victoria.
The commission has allowed the cardinal to give evidence by videolink from Rome because he is deemed to be too ill to travel to Australia.
In his first sitting on Sunday night, the cardinal, who is now the Vatican’s finance chief, admitted the church made ‘enormous mistakes’ in handling clergy child abuse and said he was not there to ‘defend the indefensible’.
The Fosters, whose daughters were victims of pedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell at their Melbourne school between 1988 and 1993, perceived a softening in the cardinal’s approach, saying previously he would have just completely denied knowledge of pedophile priest activity.
Cardinal Pell told the commission he had heard rumours of abuse and inappropriate behaviour by priests and brothers in the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s, but that he did not know about actual offences or receive direct complaints, and had no power to act even if he had wanted to.
‘I must, say in those days, if a priest denied such activity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial’, he said.
Mr Foster noted that the cardinal admitted that other people knew of such activity and he had heard rumours of such activity.
‘That’s a chink we haven’t seen before, previously there’s been a complete denial’, Mr Foster said.
‘The interesting thing is going to be whether it can be shown that he knew or should have known.’
The Fosters are big admirers of commission chief Peter McClellan, who they say can step in to be more forceful in getting responses from witnesses.
The couple are part of an abuse survivors’ group that has travelled to Rome to be at the Pell hearings thanks to a crowdfunding campaign.
‘We are a dignified group, there’s no hate, there’s no anger’, Mr Foster said.
The Fosters say it hurts every time they talk about what happened to their daughters, who were both traumatised by the abuse.
Emma took an overdose of her medication and died in 2008, while Katie was hit by a car after a drinking binge and is now brain damaged and in a wheelchair.
‘It hurts all the time. Every day Emma’s not here and every day Katie’s disabled’, Ms Foster said.
She said people who are sexually abused as children want to forget it.
‘It’s horrible, disgusting and so they drink or take drugs to try and forget about it’.