The Vatican is holding off from issuing any disciplinary measures against Cardinal George Pell until the Australian prelate has exhausted all legal avenues in trying to overturn his convictions for the sexual abuse of children.
After a panel of judges rejected Pell’s attempt to overturn the December 2018 jury’s guilty verdict against him, the Holy See released a statement saying the cardinal has “always maintained his innocence” and that he is entitled to bring his case to the High Court of Australia.
The Vatican added, however, that it is committed to pursuing perpetrators of abuse through the “competent ecclesiastical authorities,” a reference to the Church investigation that has been opened against the 78-year-old former Holy See economy tsar.
That process, which could see Pell removed from the priesthood, will not get into a full swing until a decision on the final appeal bid is made. It is still unclear whether the High Court will even hear the cardinal’s case.
"As in other cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case," a Vatican spokesman said on Wednesday, adding that the pope had removed the cardinal from public ministry and contact with minors when Pell returned to Australia.
A senior Rome source said the church inquiry will rely on what the Australian court is willing to share with investigators, and an assessment has to be made on whether the case will proceed.
The cardinal can defend himself during the church process and, judging by his approach in the civil trial, he is likely to vigorously contest the case. But it also opens a potentially nightmare scenario for the Holy See is if the church clears cardinal, while his criminal conviction stands.
The Pell case has become something of a litmus test for the church’s handling of abuse, given that so much hangs on the testimony of a single complainant.
Will a victim, who has undergone cross-examination and convinced a jury, be believed, or will the denials of a powerful cardinal be accepted? For the Church to convince the world it is serious about tackling abuse, child protection experts stress that everyone making an allegation of abuse must be listened to, regardless of who they accuse.
In a statement following the appeal court decision, the cardinal’s victim said he had risked “my privacy, my health, my wellbeing, my family” by coming forward. He stressed he was not motivated by a vendetta against the Church nor was he planning a compensation claim.
“This is not about money and never has been,” he said. “Some commentators have suggested that I am somehow out to cause damage to the Catholic Church. I’m not on a mission to do anybody any harm. Although my faith has taken a battering it is still part of my life and part of the lives of my loved ones.”
Pope Francis is also waiting for the High Court appeal before taking any decision on whether to remove Pell, now serving a six-year jail term, from the College of Cardinals.
The slowness to act on Pell contrasts with the treatment of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick whose red hat was removed after allegations that he abused minors were deemed credible. Like Pell, McCarrick was accused of perpetrating abuse in a cathedral sacristy. Much will also depend on whether the cardinal willingly gives up his red hat, which looks unlikely at the moment.
The canonical inquiry could also look into other allegations of abuse made against Cardinal Pell. Soon after the cardinal’s conviction was made public, a 50-year-old man has lodged a civil lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Victoria, alleging that he was assaulted by then Fr George Pell in a swimming pool in Ballarat as a boy during the 1970s.
Allegations that the cardinal groped the boys in the pool was due to be examined in the terminated second trial. The man, who has asked not to be named, is suing Pell personally along with the Archdiocese of Melbourne, the State of Victoria and the trustees of the Catholic boys' home where he lived.
In June 2017, Victoria police charged the cardinal with multiple allegations of sexual offences with a number relating to molestation at a swimming pool in Ballarat.
A committal hearing before his trial also heard he had been accused of abusing a complainant while watching the film 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' at a cinema, and abusing another complainant during a water-skiing outing at a lake. None of those allegations proceeded to trial.
In 2002, a man called Phil Scott alleged that a 20-year-old Pell groped him as a 12-year-old at a summer camp in 1961. The Church commissioned a retired judge, Alec Southwell, to investigate the claim, he found it “not proven” but the claim was not dismissed.
Separately, the cardinal was accused by a man called Les Tyak for exposing himself to young boys at the Torquay Life Saving Club, on the coast of Victoria, in the summer of 1986-87 and where Pell went on holiday.
Rather than the burden of proof required by a criminal trial, Church child protection norms assess whether an allegation is credible before considering whether to remove a priest from ministry.
The context to Pell’s conviction is Australia’s Royal Commission, an exhaustive inquiry into institutional responses to abuse which found 4,444 were victims of abuse in the Church in a period spanning 1950-2010.
Pell gave evidence to the commission twice, and for years he has been accused of cover-ups while in Australia — claims he’s always denied. Now that the appeal court in Victoria has given their verdict, it is expected that Australia’s Royal Commission will soon release their findings into the cardinal’s record.
When the commission published their report into child sexual abuse the sections on Pell were redacted due to his trial, although counsel to the inquiry, Gail Furness, gave a hint of what is to come when she submitted that the cardinal had not exercised proper care for children by not acting on information about sexual offenders. When the commission findings on Pell are eventually released, observers of the commission expect them to be damning.
There is pressure for the Church to consider the cardinal’s handling of abuse given that lead abuse investigator, the Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, says 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.
Treatment of Victims
Pell’s response to abuse victims over the years, who have claimed he treated them with heartless insensitivity, and with a gross lack of pastoral care, is bubbling away in the background.
The late Anthony Foster, and his wife Chrissie, whose two daughters were abused by a priest, were left deeply distressed by Pell’s response to their pleas for help, while another victim was shocked by the Australian prelate’s reply when he told him he had been abused.
His approach, many survivors argue, also placed the needs of the institution and its assets first by using litigation and defensive legal strategies against survivors. The response to abuse he devised in Melbourne has been roundly criticised.
All of this contradict the tone and message of the Vatican’s February 2019 abuse summit, where the voices of survivors were given a central billing, and bishops sought to find a survivor-centred response to abuse.
Nevertheless, many in Australia still believe in Pell’s innocence, and hope he can be vindicated. The High Court is their last hope.
While everyone has their right to use the law to defend their good name, some will argue that a cardinal investing more resources and energy into appealing to the High Court sends a message that reputation comes first.
or Christians, other considerations must be taken into account, including that Jesus Christ laid down his life for others, and to redeem their suffering. The cardinal has already stated that during his time in prison he has tried to unite his suffering with that of Jesus. Survivors will hope he can put that into action.
“I just hope that it is all over now,” the cardinal’s victim said.
During the Vatican’s abuse summit, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, said a “copernican revolution” is needed to tackle abuse. The abused must no longer orbit the Church, but the Church must orbit them. This requires a conversion of hearts, as much as changes to structures.
The Pell case is an obstacle to this change, and a good number of bishops believe the only way the Church can become a place of healing, and justice is if it steps out of the shadow of the towering, and once dominant cardinal.
James Roberts and Liz Dodd discuss the appeal result in the latest Tablet podcast.