ROME/SYDNEY Australian victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests said on Friday they were disappointed they were not granted a meeting with Pope Francis and contested the Vatican's assertion they failed to make their request through the proper channels.
The group of about 15 were in Rome for a week to watch Cardinal George Pell give evidence via video link to an Australian government commission about sexual abuse in Australia when he was a priest and bishop there in the 1970s and 1980s.
"We would have wanted to know how the pope could have assisted us by vocalizing his support and acknowledging the mistakes of the past," said David Ridsdale, who as a boy was abused by his uncle, a priest at the time.
A Vatican spokesman said on Friday no request had been made though the proper channels. The group had made their approach through Pell's office.
"Considering what's been happening, I don't believe there was a lack of awareness of our efforts," Ridsdale told Reuters at a Rome hotel before the group left for the airport.
Pell, who is now the Vatican's treasurer, became the highest ranking Vatican official to give testimony on the issue of system abuse within the Church. His four-day grilling over cases involving hundreds of children in Australia from the 1960s to the 1990s has taken on wider implications about the accountability of church leaders.
After a two-hour meeting with victims, Pell dismissed suggestions he resign his position, saying to do so would be "an admission of guilt".
Pell had told the inquiry that the Church had 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.
He also said he was deceived and lied to by superiors as a young priest in the 1970s.
Pell said he had been worried about meeting with victims, including Ridsdale, whom Pell testified had lied to the inquiry about Pell trying to bribe him to remain silent about his abuse.
"I didn't want a punch up that made things worse for the church and for them," Pell said in a News Corp TV interview.
Pell conceded that while child abuse was a problem throughout society, "there was a disproportionate amount of it in the Catholic church."
"We've got to plead guilty to that," he said.
Pell also provided more detail on the health issues that had prevented him from traveling to his home country to give evidence directly to the inquiry, saying he has had a pace maker fitted and an angioplasty "both provoked by travel to Australia."
A crowd funding campaign in Australia raised the money for the victims and support group to travel to Rome to be in the same room with him.
(Editing by Jane Wardell and Ed Davies)