VATICAN CITY/SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Monday strongly defended Australian Cardinal George Pell against accusations by a member of Pope Francis' commission on sexual abuse that the Vatican's finance chief had little regard for victims.
Peter Saunders, one of 17 members of the commission advising the pope on how to root out sex abuse in the Church, said on Australian television on Sunday that Pell should be dismissed over allegations he failed to take action to protect children.
Pell, now charge of reforming the Vatican's economic departments, issued a statement soon after the programme aired, calling Saunders's comments "false", "misleading" and "outrageous", and said he would consult legal advisers.
In a statement published by the network on his behalf, Pell said he had always taken a strong stand against child abuse. Pell has denied moving priests accused of abuse between parishes or offering one victim inducements to drop a complaint.
The comments by Saunders, one of the most outspoken members of the commission, underscored strains within the Church on how to deal with the sexual abuse crisis that has plagued it for nearly two decades.
"Cardinal Pell has always responded attentively and in detail to the questions posed by Australian authorities," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said. Pell's comments should be "considered reliable and worthy of respect and attention".
Saunders, speaking on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes Australia programme, said of Pell: "He is making a mockery of the papal commission (into child abuse), of the pope himself, but most of all of the victims and the survivors."
"He has a catalogue of denigrating people, of acting with callousness, cold-heartedness, almost sociopathic I would go as far as to say, this lack of care," said Saunders, a Briton who was himself a victim of abuse.
Saunders said Pell should be "moved aside" and sent back to Australia to address a separate Australian abuse inquiry, which confirmed on Monday that it would ask Pell to testify. But it did not set a date or say if he would have to testify in person.
Saunders has in the past threatened to resign if the commission did not move quickly to hold accountable those bishops suspected of covering up sexual abuse by priests on their watch.
Part of the task of the commission is to help dioceses put in place best practices to prevent abuse and work with victims in a process of healing.
Australia's inquiry has focused in recent weeks on the rural town of Ballarat, in the state of Victoria, where Pell was a priest in the 1970s. Pell said the inquiry's recent hearings there had raised old allegations of which he had already been cleared.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)