Cardinal Pell to explain abuse response

Cardinal George Pell. (AAP)

Live from the Vatican next week will be Cardinal George Pell, who created the first internal church system for responding to people abused by clergy.

When the Australian Catholic church was hit with a tidal wave of sexual abuse allegations in the 1990s, its bishops - barring George Pell - were like rabbits caught in the headlights.

Their reaction was described by the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, when he appeared before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Archbishop Coleridge was explaining why an internal church process - Towards Healing - set up to provide support for abuse survivors, sometimes failed badly.

In those days, the bishops just didn't know what to do, said Archbishop Coleridge, so when lawyers and insurance brokers showed the way, the pastors were relieved.

But Cardinal Pell, who went on to become the Vatican's supreme bean counter and the third most powerful clergyman in its bureaucracy, was definitely not among the rabbits.

Before he moved to Rome in March, Cardinal Pell, as archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, never flinched when faced with the abuse scandals threatening his beloved institution.

In 1996, while his prelate colleagues were still trying to nut out an appropriate protocol to respond to victims, he created his own solution - the Melbourne Response.

That was months before the broader church created Towards Healing, which saw professional standards offices set up to deal with complaints.

One of the main differences between Towards Healing and Cardinal Pell's creation was that in Melbourne, redress payouts were capped at $50,000 when liability could not be established. The average payment has been about $32,000.

Under Towards Healing payments varied widely and often went into six figures.

The cardinal has never made any secret of his wish to deter people from suing the church and to control damage payouts.

If he feared anything, it was that the Australian church would go the way of the US church with multi-million dollar payouts leading to bankruptcy.

That is what the John Ellis case in NSW was all about: deterrence.

Mr Ellis, a lawyer sued Cardinal Pell and the church trustees in 2006 over abuse he suffered as an alter boy in a Sydney parish.

Mr Ellis lost and and the case became legal history. It was examined in detail at a royal commission hearing in Sydney - just before the cardinal left for Rome.

There was a certain bathos to hearing the senior churchman at the end of a gruelling two days in the witness stand say while he had regrets over how Mr Ellis was treated, he took some consolation that a court upheld that church trustees could not be sued.

Cardinal Pell's Melbourne Response will be forensically dissected at another royal commission public hearing in the Victorian capital next week.

We already know a lot about the Melbourne Response, thanks to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse where its proud creator gave evidence.

On Thursday, Cardinal Pell will again explain his approach, this time by video link from the Vatican.

On the public record are harrowing stories from people whose lives or those of a family member were shattered because of abuse by clergymen.

Heartbroken parents such as Anthony and Christine (Chrissie) Foster, whose two daughters were raped by a priest in Melbourne in the 1990s - a priest whose history of abuse was allegedly known to his bosses for decades - have told how the Melbourne Response failed them.

Other abuse survivors have told of being re-traumatised by having to tell their stories to people whose prime motivations seemed to reflect the archbishop's - protect church reputation and control payouts.

The Fosters ended up taking civil action.

Mrs Foster will give evidence at next week's hearing as will two other people who have participated in the Melbourne Response.

The commission will hear from main player Peter O'Callaghan QC, the independent Melbourne Response commissioner appointed by Cardinal Pell in 1996.

The archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, will also take the stand.

Richard Leder from Cardinal Pell's favoured law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth will also testify.

Cardinal Pell has great faith in lawyers.

Despite some moral conundrums about putting John Ellis through the wringer by disputing his abuse claims in court (the church had already accepted the abuse happened), the cardinal said he followed legal advice and in that sense acted honestly.

Just last week, the ABC's Four Corners shone further light on how the controversial cleric and his unique response to people abused by clergy worked in Melbourne.

The royal commission could ask what happened in Doveton now that it has been revealed an internal 1997 report requested by Cardinal Pell discovered priest Peter Searson was guilty of sexual assault but Fr Searson was allowed to keep working.

Cardinal Pell was asked about Fr Searson, who died in 2009, at the Victorian inquiry. He never mentioned the internal report and roundly denied a cover-up.

The rabbit caught in the headlights analogy may yet apply.