Cardinal George Pell knew pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale was moved between parishes because of sex abuse allegations and failed to push for another's removal, a royal commission concluded.
The child abuse royal commission findings surprised Australia's most senior Catholic cleric, who argues they are not supported by the evidence.
The commissioners rejected Cardinal Pell's claim he was deceived in "a world of crimes and cover-ups" about Ridsdale, his 1973 Ballarat housemate who was later revealed to be Australia's worst pedophile priest, and the unstable and disturbed Melbourne priest Peter Searson.
The commission found Cardinal Pell was aware of child sexual abuse by clergy in the early 1970s, after the former Vatican treasurer conceded it was "on his radar".
"We are also satisfied that by 1973 Cardinal Pell was not only conscious of child sexual abuse by clergy but that he also had considered measures of avoiding situations which might provoke gossip about it," the commissioners wrote in their unredacted report released on Thursday.
The commission found child sexual abuse was on Cardinal Pell's radar in relation to Ridsdale taking boys away on overnight camps and Mildura priest John Day.
Cardinal Pell had conceded that, with hindsight, he should have done more after being told of rumours about Brother Edward Dowlan's sexual infractions with boys in Ballarat in the early 1970s.
The commission found he dismissed a boy's complaint about Dowlan "touching little boys" as "ridiculous" in 1974.
Cardinal Pell was found to be among a large number of senior church officials who knew about complaints in the Ballarat diocese and Melbourne archdiocese in the 1970s and 1980s, where hundreds of children were sexually abused by numerous priests and Christian Brothers.
The catastrophic failures were led by 1971-1997 Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns and the 1974-1996 Melbourne archbishop Frank Little, who prioritised protecting the church's reputation.
Bishop Mulkearns knew about Ridsdale's offending and repeatedly moved the priest between parishes, appointments that were discussed by his advisers at no less than 18 meetings.
The commission concluded Cardinal Pell likely knew of Ridsdale's sexual transgressions at a 1977 meeting, despite church parties arguing there was no evidence any attendee other than Bishop Mulkearns knew about it.
The commission also rejected Cardinal Pell's evidence that Bishop Mulkearns lied to his advisers in 1982 when Ridsdale was removed from Mortlake parish, where the pedophile priest later admitted his behaviour was "out of control".
"Cardinal Pell's evidence that 'paedophilia was not mentioned' and that the 'true' reason was not given is not accepted," the report said.
"It is implausible ... that Bishop Mulkearns did not inform those at the meeting of at least complaints of sexual abuse of children having been made."
After the previously redacted findings' release on Thursday following the High Court's decision to overturn his child abuse convictions, Cardinal Pell said he was surprised by some of the royal commission's views about his actions.
"These views are not supported by evidence," he said in a statement.
The former Melbourne and Sydney archbishop was "especially surprised" by the findings about what he knew about Ridsdale at the two consultors meetings.
Cardinal Pell testified he did not know Ridsdale was an abuser until 1989, after he left the Ballarat diocese.
He said the consultors who gave evidence about the 1977 and 1982 meetings either said they did not learn of Ridsdale's offending until much later or they had no recollection of what was discussed.
"None said they were made aware of Ridsdale's offending at these meetings," he said.
The commission also rejected Cardinal Pell's evidence he was deceived by Melbourne Catholic education officials because they did not tell him what they knew about Searson's behaviour.
The commission in 2017 found Archbishop Little repeatedly did nothing about Searson.
A 1989 delegation of Doveton teachers complained to then-Bishop Pell about Searson harassing children, staff and parents, showing children a body in coffin and animal cruelty.
The commission found the bishop should have urged Archbishop Little to take action against Searson.
"On the basis of what was known to Bishop Pell in 1989, it ought to have been obvious to him at the time.
"He should have advised the archbishop to remove Father Searson and he did not do so."
Cardinal Pell said the delegation did not mention sexual assaults and did not ask for Searson's removal.
Cardinal Pell removed Searson after becoming Melbourne archbishop in 1996.
Australian Associated Press