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Vatican finance chief George Pell Thursday said he was ready to meet with child sex abuse victims after an outcry over his decision not to appear in person at an Australian inquiry.
Pell, an Australian, was due at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in the town of Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne, later this month but will give evidence via video-link from Rome instead, citing illness.
He has always denied knowing of any child abuse occurring in Ballarat, where he was once based, including by paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale, who abused dozens of children over two decades.
The former Archbishop of Sydney's decision to testify remotely sparked a crowdfunding campaign this week to send 15 victims to Rome to witness him giving evidence.
It has so far raised more than Aus$176,000 (US$126,000), easily surpassing the original Aus$55,000 target.
In a statement, Pell's office said there was a "great deal of incorrect information" about the 74-year-old's upcoming appearance at the hearing.
"Cardinal Pell has always helped victims, listened to them and considered himself their ally," it said.
"As an archbishop for almost 20 years he has led from the front to put an end to cover ups, to protect vulnerable people and to try to bring justice to victims."
His office added that Pell had previously appeared before a parliamentary inquiry in the state of Victoria in 2013 and the royal commission in 2014.
"The Cardinal is anxious to present the facts without further delays. It is ultimately a matter for the Royal Commission to determine the precise arrangements for the provision of evidence by the Cardinal in Rome," it said.
"As Cardinal Pell has done after earlier hearings, he is prepared to meet with and listen to victims and express his ongoing support."
Pell accompanied Ridsdale to court in 1993 when he admitted widespread abuse, but has repeatedly denied he knew about any of the offences, that he helped move the priest to another parish or that he tried to buy anyone's silence, as has been alleged.
Australia's senior Catholic clergy have thrown their support behind him, describing Pell last year as a "man of integrity who is committed to helping others".
The commission was called after a decade of pressure to investigate wide-ranging allegations of paedophilia in Australia. It has heard harrowing claims of child abuse involving places of worship, orphanages, community groups and schools.