The cardinal’s colour rose all afternoon. He smiled once or twice after negotiating a difficult passage. He clasped and unclasped his hands, never quite in prayer. He droned. He snapped. He stared at the six members of the Victorian parliament’s family and community development committee with a gaze that seemed focused somewhere south of Macquarie Island.

But the former archbishop of Melbourne was in the room. That was the triumph the gallery of victims and the parents of victims was enjoying. They didn’t expect anything new from him – Cardinal Pell is not a man known for changing course – but he was in Melbourne answering questions. He identified his team of advisers. “All of them,” he told the committee, “married people with children, keen to help us with this fight.”

He had many complaints. He complained he hadn’t been called to give evidence months ago; that he wasn’t allowed to make an opening statement; that the church had experienced “25 years of hostility from the press”; that the Victorian government “was not active earlier” on child abuse, and that he was so often misunderstood: “I have always been on the side of the victims.”

No one rose when he came into the room. He was in civvies: white shirt, no jewellery, his head bowed under the weight of the mitre he wasn’t wearing. A fortnight shy of his 72nd birthday, Pell is a big man with strength in reserve. His voice is masculine but oddly refined: Oxford over Ballarat.

Everything about him except his testimony spoke of power. “I am not the Catholic prime minister of Australia,” he assured the committee. He downplayed his authority; his friendship with Benedict XVI, and his influence in Rome and his hold over his fellow bishops. He spoke of the church in Australia as if it were an ungoverned archipelago of parishes and diocese and religious orders.

He admitted his church had covered up abuse for fear of scandal; that his predecessor Archbishop Little had destroyed records, moved paedophile priests from parish to parish and facilitated appalling crimes. He agreed Little’s behavior was reprehensible, not Christlike.

“Did you ever transfer a priest about whom you knew there were allegations of child abuse?” asked pugnacious former journalist and deputy chair of the committee, Frank McGuire.

“I don’t believe I did. I never meant to. I don’t believe I did. And therefore I’m quite happy to say I didn’t.”

“Did you in any way cover up offending?”

“No.”

“Were you guilty of wilful blindness?’’

“I certainly wasn’t.”

But as archbishop of Melbourne he had, he conceded, continued to pay a stipend to Father Ronald Pickering who vanished to England in 1993 after child abuse allegations began to be made. Pickering refused to assist the police, refused to help the church insurers and refused to come back to Melbourne to face the music. But Pell kept paying his “frugal” allowance.