Cardinal Pell's late night of tough questions

Cardinal George Pell is the treasurer of the Catholic Church Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cardinal George Pell is the treasurer of the Catholic Church

When Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell delivered his long-awaited testimony to an Australian government inquiry into child sex abuse, the BBC's Rome correspondent James Reynolds was in the room.

Cardinal George Pell entered the hotel ballroom one minute before the scheduled starting time of 22:00 (21:00 GTM). He walked with a slight stoop to a table set up next to a video screen.

One-hundred-and-fifty people gathered to watch him give evidence. Two Vatican security guards sat discreetly on the aisles near the front.

More than a dozen victims of abuse from Australia were also in the audience. They'd raised the money to fly here to Rome. Some wore red T-shirts printed with the words "No More Silence".

Technicians dimmed one of the room's chandeliers and opened the video link with the Royal Commission in Australia. The opening questions were easy.

"Are you the number three in the Vatican?" the counsel asked.

"I wouldn't say I was," answered the Cardinal dryly. "I'm a senior official."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Australian child abuse victims arrive at the Rome hotel where Cardinal Pell have evidence late on Sunday

Twenty minutes into his testimony, George Pell got to his main point. The audience listened closely.

"I am not here to defend the indefensible," he said.

"The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those. The church has in many places, certainly in Australia, mucked things up, has let people down."

The counsel asked Cardinal Pell in detail about his time as a young priest in eastern Australia in the 1970s.

Some of his fellow clerics from that period have since been found guilty of abusing children. The cardinal denied having any direct knowledge of their crimes.

There were occasional lighter moments.

"You excelled at sport and academically [at school]," the counsel observed.

"I had some capacity in both areas." Cardinal Pell replied.

"I think you're being quite modest," the counsel shot back, to a murmur of laughter from the cardinal's supporters in the ballroom.

He occasionally paused in search of an answer.

"I'm having a senior moment," the 74-year-old confessed as he tried to remember the location of a seminary.

Image copyright The Royal Commission
Image caption Cardinal George Pell said the Catholic Church has made "enormous mistakes" in dealing with claims of sexual abuse.

The hearing ended shortly before 0200 local time. In the rain outside the hotel, survivors said they'd been pleased by the cardinal's more conciliatory tone. But they stressed that there was still a long way to go before reaching the truth.

At 0300, the cardinal left the hotel. Australian journalists surrounded his limousine.

"Any message to the victims who've travelled from Australia to be here to see you?" one of them asked.

"I hope we can help them a bit," the cardinal replied.

His car drove away towards the Vatican. The road was empty.

More on this story