ROME/SYDNEY, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Australian Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Vatican official to testify on systemic sexual abuse of children by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, on Monday said senior clergy lied to him to cover up abuse in the 1970s.
The Vatican's treasurer told Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse that he was deceived about why abusive priests were moved from parish to parish.
Pell's testimony to the Australian inquiry into sexual abuse cases that occurred decades ago has taken on wider implications about the accountability of church leaders given his high rank within the church. The cardinal told reporters as he arrived at Rome's Hotel Quirinale to give evidence that he had the full backing of Pope Francis.
Commissioner Peter McClellan pressed Pell repeatedly about his assertions that he knew nothing of incidents involving one priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale, who was later convicted of 138 offenses against more than 50 children in Australia.
At the time that Ridsdale was being shifted from parish to parish, Pell was tasked with giving advice to the regional bishop on the appointments of priests to particular parishes.
See Pell through the years and more on the scandal:
Cardinal George Pell, Vatican abuse, sex crimes
Top Vatican cardinal says senior clergy lied about child sexual abuse
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 04: Australian cardinal George Pell attends a mass for the opening of the Synod on the themes of family held by Pope Francis at St. Peter's Basilica on October 4, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. The director of the Holy See press office Father Federico Lombardi on Saturday reacting to revelations by a high-ranking Vatican official that he is in a gay relationship said 'the decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the Synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the Synod assembly to undue media pressure'. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 20: Pope Francis greets Australian Cardinal George Pell as he arrives at the Synod Hall for a session of Synod on The Themes Of Family on October 20, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican. The Synod of Bishops on the family moves into its third and final week. Over the first two weeks the Church leaders have been seeking to resolve tensions between the different visions of family life and ministry. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: (FILES) Cardinal George Pell, Sydney Archbishop and the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, holds court at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, 03 June 2002. The conservative Pell has emerged as a candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II. AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
(AUSTRALIA OUT) File photo dated 11 May 2003 of Archbishop George Pell holding mass at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney who was one of 31 new cardinals named by the Vatican on 28 September 2003. Pell, age 62, has made headlines in Australia for refusing communion to gays, for opposing women priests, for saying homosexuality was a bigger health hazard than smoking and that abortion was a worse moral scandal than sexual abuse by priests. AFP PHOTO/FAIRFAX/Robert PEARCE (Photo credit should read ROBERT PEARCE/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY, Vatican: Newly appointed cardinal George Pell of Australia kisses Pope John Paul II's hand on St Peter square 21 October 2003 at the Vatican during the ordination ceremony of new cardinals. The 30 cardinals appointed today will bring the Consistory to 135 cardinal-electors who will meet in conclave to elect a next Pope after his death. AFP PHOTO PAOLO COCCO (Photo credit should read PAOLO COCCO/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: (FILES) Cardinal George Pell, Sydney Archbishop and the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, talks to the media outside St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, 01 April 2004. The conservative Pell has emerged as a candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II. AFP PHOTO/Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY - OCTOBER 25: Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell (L) and the personal secretary of Pope Benedict XVI Georg Ganswein (R) attend the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square October 25, 2006 in Vatican City. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
Cardinal George Pell conducts the opening mass of World Youth Day (WYD), in Sydney on July 15, 2008. Pope Benedict XVI who did not attend this mass as he rests, is to lead the six-day celebration starting today for the event which is expected to attract up to 125,000 international visitors and that will culminate in a papal mass before an estimated 500,000 people in Sydney July 20. AFP PHOTO/William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 15: In this handout photo provided by World Youth Day, His Eminence Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney arrives for the Opening Mass of Welcome of World Youth Day Sydney 2008 at Barangaroo on July 15, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. Organised every two to three years by the Catholic Church, World Youth Day (WYD) is an invitation from the Pope to the youth of the world to celebrate their faith. The celebration, being held in Sydney from July 15, 2008 to July 20, 2008, will mark the first visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to Australia. (Photo by World Youth Day via Getty Images)
Cardinal George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, unveils Australia's first pure gold (L) and silver (R) coins commemorating the canonisation of Mary MacKillop in Sydney on September 30, 2010. MacKillop is set to become Australia's first saint when she is canonised by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on October 17, 101 years after her death. Only 7,500 silver coins will be issued by The Perth Mint, while the stricter mintage of 2,010 gold coins recognises the year in which she became a saint. AFP PHOTO / Torsten BLACKWOOD (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Sydney Archbishop Cardinal George Pell speaks to the media during a press conference in Sydney on November 13, 2012. The Catholic Church should not be the scapegoat in an Australian inquiry into child sex abuse, the country's most senior Catholic cleric said November 13 as he accused the press of a persistent campaign. AFP PHOTO/ROSLAN RAHMAN (Photo credit should read ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 26: Cardinal George Pell arrives for his appearance at the Royal Commission on March 26, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. Cardinal Pell is facing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney to answer questions about whether he was involved in compensation discussions related to the case of John Ellis who was sexually abused by Father Aidan Duggan.Cardinal Pell will soon move to Rome to undertake a senior role at the Vatican. (Photo by Don Arnold/Getty Images)
Australian Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See, attends a press conference on March 31, 2014 in Vatican. Cardinal George Pell and Italian writer Francesco Lozupone presented the book 'Co-responsability and transparency in the administration of church property'. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters hold placards outside the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Sydney on February 29, 2016, as Australia's Cardinal George Pell gave evidence via video-link from a hotel in Rome to the Royal Commission rather than appearing in person as he has a heart condition. Vatican finance chief Cardinal George Pell admitted on February 29 the Catholic Church 'mucked up' in dealing with paedophile priests and vowed he would not 'defend the indefensible' before an Australian inquiry. AFP PHOTO / WIlliam WEST / AFP / WILLIAM WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
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Pell denied there was any discussion of Ridsdale being a pedophile at a meeting he attended in 1982 where it was discussed that Ridsdale should be moved again.
"So we're in the position where you were deceived by the Bishop and Monsignor Fiscalini and someone, possibly the bishop, has lied to you. Is that right?" McClellan asked. Pell replied: "That is correct."
There were audible gasps when at one point during a testy exchange over video link to Sydney, Pell said of Ridsdale's abuse: "It's a sad story and it wasn't of much interest to me."
Ridsdale's nephew, David Ridsdale, was among 15 abuse victims and supporters who traveled to Rome to see Pell give evidence after he said he was unable to travel to his native Australia because of heart problems.
"We are speaking of moral leaders of towns and cities and for them to have no interest in such behavior seems remarkable," David Ridsdale said.
"The Catholic Church was behaving with lies and deceit within their own structure, let alone outside that structure, and I think that has just been confirmed."
Pell on Sunday told the Commission that the church made "enormous mistakes" and "catastrophic" choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and over-relying on counseling of priests to solve the problem.
Last year, Pell denied accusations made at Commission hearings that he had tried to bribe a victim to remain quiet, that he ignored another complaint and that he was complicit in the transfer of a pedophile priest.
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that U.S. bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them. Similar scandals have since been discovered around the world and tens of millions of dollars have been paid in compensation.
The Australian hearing started on the same night that Spotlight, a film about newspaper reporters who uncovered systemic pedophilia in the Church in Boston, won the Academy Award for best picture.
"The ogres were not exclusively men in cassocks. Pedophilia does not necessarily derive from a vow of chastity," the Vatican newspaper wrote of the win. "But it is by now clear that there were too many people in the Church who were more worried about the image of the institution than the gravity of the act." (Editing by David Gregorio and Michael Perry)