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Top Vatican cardinal says handling of sex abuse that rocked Australia was ‘absolutely scandalous’

WASHINGTON — Cardinal George Pell told an Australian court ‘‘a significant number’’ of people knew about abuse by Christian brothers at schools in his Australian parish.

Pell acknowledged he even said he had heard about ‘‘misbehavior’’ by two priests, and that the church had moved one offending priest from parish to parish while dismissing allegations of abuse.

But, he insisted, the problem was with individuals, not the overall church. ‘‘I think the faults overwhelmingly have been more personal faults, personal failures, rather than structures,’’ he testified.

Pell is currently secretariat for the economy, a position described as the second-most-powerful in Rome. He spoke to the court in Sydney via videoconference from Rome.

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Pell said he was “not here to defend the indefensible,” but he attempted to explain how one of the most notorious pedophilia rings in the country could have taken place on his watch, and how he could have heard about priests who engaged in ‘‘misbehavior’’ — kissing boys, swimming naked with students — and not reported it.

He also addressed the question of how thousands of children were raped and molested by priests in Australia and elsewhere while the church did nothing. ‘‘The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those,’’ he said. ‘‘But the church in many places, certainly Australia, has . . . let people down.’’

But in the courtroom in Sydney, and the hotel in Rome, and in Ballarat where dozens of children were abused years ago, the focus was incredibly specific: What did Pell know, and when, and what did he do about it?

Pell admitted ‘‘a significant number’’ of people knew about abuse by Christian brothers at schools in his parish and that the church had moved one priest from parish to parish.

In Ballarat, four brothers were convicted of sex crimes; another died before the accusations became public. And a chaplain was found guilty of abusing more than 50 children.

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Pell left Australia for Rome in 2014 after having served as a parish priest and archbishop.