Australian Cardinal George Pell,
Speaking on the fourth and last day of hearings before a royal commission on abuse that occurred decades ago in Australia, Pell said it was a "disastrous coincidence" that five pedophile priests were active in his home town of Ballarat.
During a break in the hearing, victims of Australian predator priests who listened to Pell's testimony said they felt they had been "deceived and lied to."
"We feel George has not been honest and truthful," they said in a statement.
The six-hour session wrapped up a week of hearings in Rome during which Pell was warned by a lawyer for the Australian inquiry into child sex abuse that he was "implausible" when he claimed he knew little about rampant abuse by priests in Australia decades ago.
Pell, 74, who was called to Rome from Australia by Francis and is considered the third-highest ranking Vatican official, has long maintained he was oblivious to the numerous priests raping children around him when he served as a priest in Ballarat and later as bishop in Melbourne.
After previously giving evidence in Australia to a commission on abuse, Pell declined to fly back this year for a new hearing because of a heart condition, prompting the commission to set up a video link for him from a Rome hotel.
But the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse also allowed Australian victims of priests to fly to Rome to sit in with Pell as he gave evidence to judges who were in Sydney. Twelve victims, their relatives and advisors, paid for by a hugely successful crowdfunding effort in Australia, traveled to the hearings, which were held from 10 p.m. to about 2 a.m. or later over four nights from Sunday, to coincide with morning in Australia.
As lawyers for the commission reeled off horrific stories of pedophile priests, Pell blamed fellow churchmen for keeping him in the dark and called it a time of "crimes and coverups" in the Roman Catholic Church.
Commission chairman Peter McClellan told Pell that his description of a Catholic Education Office coverup "makes no sense at all," because the office reported complaints about priests to the archbishop and vicar general.
The lead counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, told Pell the testimony was "completely implausible."
Pell's testimony that he was deceived by church authorities in both Ballarat and Melbourne was an "extraordinary position," Furness said.
"Counsel, this was an extraordinary world. A world of crimes and coverups, and people did not want the status quo to be disturbed," Pell said.
While he has earned plaudits worldwide for his defense of the poor and his campaign for a more merciful church, Francis has been accused of "not getting it" when it comes to cracking down on abuse and on bishops who shift abusive priests from parish to parish.
To howls of protest Francis last year dismissed as "lefties" the opponents of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up for an abuser, and has made no move to breathe life into a tribunal set up at the Vatican to prosecute bishops who do not report abuse.
Last month a former abuse victim sitting on a Vatican panel set up to tackle pedophilia was ejected after he complained little was getting done.
Pell said that he had asked officials for a briefing about one priest, Peter Searson, after he heard complaints in but was "deceived" into believing nothing was wrong. The church reportedly substantiated four complaints of child sexual abuse against Searson, who died in 2009.
Pell said church officials kept him out of the loop because they "realized very clearly I was not cut from the same cloth" and would not participate in coverups.
On Tuesday, Pell said that abuse carried out by priest Gerald Ridsdale, who was convicted of more than 100 child sex abuse charges, was a sad story but "not of much interest" to him at the time. He also accused Ballarat's then bishop of "gross deception" by not telling him about Ridsdale.
On the final night of hearings, Pell admitted that one boy complained to him about a priest, Father Edward Dowlan, "misbehaving with boys" at a Ballarat school, but added he "didn't do anything about it."
Between the hearing sessions, survivors told reporters of how they had been terrorized by priests.
Gordon Hill, 72, said he had been raised in a Catholic orphanage where young children were laid on to "warm the beds" for visiting priests. He said the smell of hair oil triggered a violent reaction in him to this day because it brought back the smell of the priests who raped him.
"This is not fun," said David Ridsdale, who was abused by his uncle, the priest Gerald Ridsdale. "Every victim who came to Rome did so on the condition they would have a therapist waiting for them when they got home."
At the final hearing, Pell denied claims made by David Ridsdale that he offered him a bribe to stay silent about his uncle's sexual abuse. Ridsdale's claims, Pell said, were "implausible."
The hearings started the same night that the movie "Spotlight," about clerical abuse in Boston, won an Oscar for best film.
Kington is a special correspondent.