04 June 2019, The Tablet

Analysis: Pell sex abuse conviction appeal


The Church is under intense scrutiny to show it follows rigorous processes when it comes to allegations of abuse and their cover-up regardless of rank


Analysis: Pell sex abuse conviction appeal

Cardinal George Pell arrives at County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Photo: DANIEL POCKETT/AAP/PA Images

Whatever the outcome of his appeal against a conviction for sexually abusing two choir boys, Cardinal George Pell’s case is far from over. 

Even if the Australian cardinal is successful in overturning his conviction, he could find himself back in jail if the highest court in the land were to re-confirm the jury’s declaration of guilt. Such a scenario is not without precedent, and it means the process could drag on into the middle of next year, and beyond. Justice, however, must take its course.  

In Rome, the question is when and how to proceed with the Church's investigation which has been opened into the 77-year-old former Vatican treasurer. Such a process is going to take time, and is unlikely to start until all legal avenues have been exhausted by Pell and his team, who continue to maintain his innocence.

Nevertheless, a canonical trial can consider the other allegations of abuse made against the cardinal over the years and could end up in removing him from the priesthood. The potential nightmare scenario is if the Church's trial finds Pell innocent, whereas the civil courts maintain the conviction. 

A more pressing matter is how long Pell, who was sentenced to a six-year jail term in March, can remain in the Sacred College of Cardinals. His treatment contrasts with ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned his red hat when the allegations of abuse against him were judged as credible. If the details of the Pell and McCarrick cases are examined with the names blacked out, would people still reach the same conclusions? 

The Church is now under intense scrutiny to show it follows rigorous processes when it comes to allegations of abuse and their cover-up regardless of rank, and there could be a case for removing the Australian cardinal’s red hat privileges simply over his handling of abuse. 

For years, Pell has been accused of cover-ups while in Australia — claims he’s always denied. But he will soon find out what Australia’s Royal Commission thinks about his record. When the commission published their report into child sexual abuse the sections on Pell were redacted due to his trial, although when these findings are eventually released, expect them to be damning. 

There are other reasons why the pressure is on to take action. The Church’s lead abuse investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna has said the cover-up of abuse cases are as egregious as the crime, and since Pell’s December 2018 conviction the Pope has issued two pieces of anti-abuse legislation, including making it a crime for Vatican officials to fail to report abuse. 

Then there is Pell's response to victims, who have claimed he treated them insensitively, and with a lack of pastoral care. His approach, they argue, was to place the needs of the institution, and its assets first by using litigation and defensive legal strategies against survivors. All of that runs contrary to the argument, made at the Vatican’s February abuse summit, that the voices of victims are the wounds of Christ on the cross. 

Sex abuse trials are hard to judge; rely heavily on the testimony of victims and generate strong emotions. Many officials in Australia and Rome can't believe the cardinal could have committed the crimes he is now in prison for carrying out. Some say it was impossible for him to abuse boys in a cathedral sacristy, although history tells this is not impossible. One of McCarrick's victims said he was sexually assaulted in the sacristy of St Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

The Pell case is particularly difficult given the conviction rests on the testimony of a single victim. On 5 and 6 June the cardinal’s legal team are seeking to persuade the appeal judges that the jury were unreasonable to believe the male victim because so many witnesses say the cardinal couldn't have carried out the abuse. 

But to defend the cardinal means casting doubt on the testimony of the former choirboy, who was subjected to intense cross-examination during Pell’s trial and was believed by a jury. Listening to, and believing, victims is one of the hard but necessary lessons the Church has been forced to learn from the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

To show the Church has learnt the lessons from the past is crucial to its credibility in Australia, where the task is to begin a post-Pell era and to step out of the shadow of their towering, and once dominant cardinal. 

Two weeks after the Pell appeal is heard, the Australian bishops are flying to Rome for their “ad limina” meeting with Pope Francis and senior Vatican officials. There is plenty to discuss - a lot has happened since their last en masse gathering in Rome eight years ago.

But the problem is disagreement on where they go next. Some of the bishops, one Church source tells me, are trying to move on from Pell, and draw a line in the sand. Others feel he has been the victim of unfair treatment and are standing by him. It is a painful and fraught situation. 

The Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, the president of the bishops’ conference, is trying to point the way forward. During the Vatican's abuse summit, he called for a Copernican revolution to take place in the Church where “those who have been abused do not revolve around the church but the church around them.”

The Pell case is an obstacle to this revolution, as are his diehard supporters who have already beatified him as a martyr and live in the false hope that their cardinal will be exonerated. 

There are no “winners” or “losers” in this tragic and terrible case, which, after the wheels of justice have finished turning, requires the Church to focus on healing and the pastoral care for the victims. Only then, can the light of a new dawn break through the darkness. 


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