The Vatican's third most senior official admitted that the Roman Catholic Church made "enormous mistakes" in ignoring decades of sexual abuse of children by priests, during an unprecedented middle-of-the-night grilling held in Rome.

Cardinal George Pell became the highest-ranking Vatican figure to testify about the Church's handling of the scandal when he gave evidence by video link from a hotel in Rome to a Royal Commission in Australia that is investigating the abuse of children by priests.

His four-hour grilling lasted until the early hours of yesterday (Monday) morning - lunchtime in Australia.

The former Archbishop of Sydney, 74, who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 to manage the Vatican's finances, acknowledged that the Catholic Church had for years dismissed allegations of abuse "in absolutely scandalous circumstances".


"They were very, very, very plausible allegations made by responsible people that were not followed up sufficiently," in an attempt to protect the Church from shame, he said.

"I'm not here to defend the indefensible," he told the hearing, held in a luxury hotel in Rome that was chosen for its strong broadband signal.

"The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those," he said.

He admitted that Catholic authorities had "mucked things up and let people down" in its response to sexual abuse of children.

Cardinal Pell is accused of ignoring warnings that Catholic priests whom he knew in the 1970s and 1980s were abusing children, particularly in the city of Ballarat in Victoria.

He was questioned about Edward Dowlan, a Christian Brother who taught at the city's St Patrick's College.

The cardinal said he had heard "one or two fleeting references" to "misbehaviour" by Dowlan in the 1970s "which I concluded might have been paedophilia activity."

Dowlan was sentenced last year to six years in jail for the abuse of around 20 boys.


Cardinal Pell admitted that he had been wrong to believe the denials of priests involved in the abuse.

He claimed that he was too frail to fly to the hearing - despite being seen last week wandering around Sydney.