By Catholic News Service and The Record
An Australian court has this week found Cardinal George Pell guilty on five charges related to the sexual abuse of two 13-year-old boys; he will return for sentencing on 13 March, but the cardinal’s lawyer has already announced plans to appeal the conviction.
On 27 February 2019, the judge heard arguments from the prosecution and defense about the sentence, including the serious nature of the crime as well as mitigating circumstances, such as the fact it is the cardinal’s first offense, his age and infirmity.
As at Wednesday 27 February, Cardinal Pell withdrew his planned application for bail, spending the night in jail, and shall remain behind bars for two weeks until his sentencing on 13 March.
Several people provided character references to the court, in support of Cardinal Pell, including former Prime Minister John Howard.
In a statement released by Cardinal Pell’s lawyers on why he did not apply for bail, his defense cited the prelate’s belief that “it is appropriate from him to await sentencing”.
“An appeal has already been lodged to be pursued following sentence.
“Despite the unprecedented media coverage, Cardinal Pell has always and continues to maintain his innocence. Like any person he has the right to pursue his legal rights and will do so,” the statement read.
Archbishop of Perth Timothy Costelloe SDB delivered a message on the matter to the Perth faithful.
“Like many other people, both Catholics and others, I am shocked and distressed at the announcement of the guilty verdict handed down by the jury in Cardinal Pell’s trial,” he began.
“I am deeply conscious of the distress this will cause for many, and the sense of justice achieved it will bring to others. I am aware that Cardinal Pell continues to vehemently protest his innocence and has indicated his intention to appeal the verdict. He is fully entitled to do so under Australian law.”
Until all legal processes have been concluded, Archbishop Costelloe said, it would be “inappropriate and inflammatory” of him to make any further public comments about this matter.
“Sexual abuse of children and young people is an abhorrent crime wherever, whenever and by whomever it is perpetrated. As I have done on many other occasions, I would again strongly advise anyone who has allegations of child sexual abuse against any officials, clergy or otherwise, connected to the Catholic Church to report these matters to the police.
“The Catholic Western Australian Office of Professional Standards is able to assist anyone who seeks their assistance to do so,” Archbishop Costelloe concluded.
The judge lifted a ban on 25 February after prosecutors announced they would not proceed with the second trial against the 77-year-old cardinal.
While professing his innocence in June 2017, Cardinal Pell took a leave of absence from his post as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy to return to Australia to face the charges.
Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Vatican Press Office, told reporters on 26 February that while an appeal is in process, Pope Francis has confirmed the “precautionary measures” prohibiting Cardinal Pell from publicly exercising his ministry as a priest and from having contact with minors.
The prelate’s five-year term as head of the secretariat expired on 24 February. In a post on Twitter, Mr Gisotti confirmed two days later that Cardinal Pell was no longer prefect of the secretariat.
Cardinal Pell’s first trial on the charges related to the alleged abuse in Melbourne ended without a verdict in September due to a hung jury.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said in a statement on 26 February that “the news of Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on historical child sexual abuse charges has shocked many across Australia and around the world, including the Catholic bishops of Australia”.
“The bishops agree that everyone should be equal under the law, and we respect the Australian legal system,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“The same legal system that delivered the verdict will consider the appeal that the cardinal’s legal team has lodged.
“Our hope, at all times, is that through this process, justice will be served,” he said. “In the meantime, we pray for all those who have been abused and their loved ones, and we commit ourselves anew to doing everything possible to ensure that the church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable.”
Ahead of an appeal – the results of which could take months – Cardinal Pell is expected to be sentenced to serve jail time.
Each count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Mr Gisotti, speaking on behalf of the Vatican after the verdict was announced, called the verdict “painful news” and pointed out that “Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the last stage of appeal”.
Awaiting the results of the appeal, he said, the Vatican joins “Australian bishops in praying for all victims of abuse” and reaffirms its “commitment to do everything possible so that the church might be a safe home for all, especially for children and the most vulnerable”.
The living victim (whose name is suppressed), testified in Cardinal Pell’s trial and released a statement saying he had experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle” as a result of the alleged abuse.
“At some point we realise that we trusted someone we should have feared, and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust,” the statement said.
The father of the other victim has engaged a lawyer to explore suing the cardinal. He said he did not know about the incident ahead of his son’s death of a heroin overdose but noted that his son had descended into a spiral of drug abuse in his teens.
Some abuse victims groups in Australia have cheered the result, while Cardinal Pell’s supporters have highlighted what they regard as thin evidence that lead to the conviction.
Writing in Eureka Street, an online Jesuit journal, Father Frank Brennan SJ, a well-known human rights lawyer in Australia who attended some sessions of the trial, raised some questions about the evidence and offered some reflections on the trial.
The December verdict came at the end of a four-week trial during which Cardinal Pell did not testify, Fr Brennan said, but his police interview denying charges was admitted as evidence.
One of the alleged victims is deceased; the jury watched the video recording of the testimony of the other victim from the initial trial, in which he was cross-examined by Cardinal Pell’s lawyer for more than a day.
“The complainant said that he and another choir boy left the liturgical procession at the end of one Sunday Mass and went fossicking [rummaging] in the off-limits sacristy where they started swilling altar wine,” Fr Brennan wrote.
“Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him,” Fr Brennan added.
“The jurors must have judged the complainant to be honest and reliable even though many of the details he gave were improbable if not impossible.”
Contributing to this story was Michael Sainsbury in Bangkok.