SYDNEY: Less than a week before Pope Benedict XVI is due to arrive in Sydney for what the Roman Catholic Church has billed as "the largest youth event in the world," the most senior Australian bishop has become embroiled in a new scandal involving alleged sexual abuse by a priest.
Pope Benedict won praise for tackling the issue of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church during his recent visit to the United States, and he is expected to address the issue when he begins his formal celebration of World Youth Day next week.
Now the most senior Catholic prelate in Australia, Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, is fighting allegations that he lied to a man who says he was abused by a priest.
The allegations center around a letter sent to the alleged victim of abuse, Anthony Jones. In 1982, when Jones was 29 years old and a teacher at a Catholic school, he says a priest, Father Terence Goodall, fondled his genitals and forced him into sexual acts.
Although he complained to the church authorities immediately after the incident, it was not until 2002, when he sent another letter, that they began an investigation into his allegations.
In February 2003, an independent investigator appointed by the church, a former police officer, Howard Murray, concluded that Jones had been abused, but Pell rejected the findings.
In a February 2003 letter to Jones, although Pell admitted that some homosexual activity had taken place and that an investigator assigned by the church to look into the case had found the claims to be substantiated, he questioned Jones's assertion that the sex was nonconsensual.
"What cannot be determined by me, however, is whether it was a matter of sexual assault as you state or homosexual behavior between two consenting adults," Pell wrote to the complainant.
However, the most damaging allegation is that Pell deliberately lied later in the letter, when he backed up his decision to dismiss the man's accusation with the statement that "No other complaint of attempted sexual assault has been received against Father Goodall and he categorically denies the accusation."
But an investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. has shown that on the same day, Feb. 14, 2003, Pell wrote to another alleged victim of Goodall's abuse, who was an 11-year-old altar boy at the time he was attacked, upholding his claims of sexual abuse against the priest.
Pell has said there was no attempt at a cover-up.
"I apologize for the confusion caused to Mr. Jones," he said. "The letter to Mr. Jones was badly worded and a mistake - an attempt to inform him there was no other allegation of rape."
And the cardinal has defended the church's procedures to cope with claims of sexual abuse. "There were mistakes made in the letter, but otherwise the procedures were good," he said.
The picture has been further muddied by a telephone transcript obtained by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s Lateline program and broadcast in a series of shows this week.
ABC says the transcript is from a telephone tap obtained by the police and it records Goodall not only apologizing to Jones for what he admits was a nonconsensual sexual act but also saying that he had never told church investigators that the act was consensual.
Following the ABC broadcasts, Pell said Thursday that he was ready to reopen the investigations into the allegations by Jones.
Australia seems to be divided over the controversy. There is pride that the country has been chosen to play host to World Youth Day, and some have questions about Jones's story.
"What is curious about the 1982 incident is that Mr. Jones was no vulnerable minor, but a 29-year-old teacher at the time. However unwelcome he says Goodall's advances were, it seems extraordinary that an unwilling adult male did not rebuff them," The Australian newspaper said in an editorial Thursday.
"It is not unreasonable that while accepting the investigation's findings, 'including homosexual misbehavior,' that Pell 'found evidence for rape insufficient,"' it concluded.