A jury in Australia rocked the country — and the Vatican — in convicting George Pell of sexual abuse from twenty years ago. Cardinal Pell took leave from his third-ranking post at the Holy See as Secretary of the Economy to fight charges that he abused two choir boys, part of a series of allegations of abuse involving Pell. Pell’s first trial had ended in a mistrial, but this time the jury convicted him despite Pell’s “vehement denials”:
The Vatican’s third most powerful official has been convicted in Australia on all charges he sexually abused two choir boys there in the late ’90s, according to two sources with knowledge of the case.
A unanimous jury returned its verdict for Cardinal George Pell on Tuesday (Australian time) after more than three days of deliberations, the sources said, in a trial conducted under a gag order by the judge that prevented any details of the trial being made public. …
In a book published last year, journalist Louise Milligan reportedly wrote that Pell was accused by two former choir boys of sexual abuse while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the ’90s. The boys sang in the choir at St. Patrick’s cathedral and were allegedly abused by Pell in a room in the confines of the church. Pell’s office told The Guardian in 2017 he “repeats his vehement and consistent denials of any and all such accusations.”
Pell is the highest ranking official in the Catholic Church to be convicted of charges relating to sexual abuse. It’s not over for Pell, either, as prosecutors have more cases to try. His next trial will involve allegations dating back 40 years or more:
A second trial known as “the swimmers trial” is due to get underway early next year, according to sources familiar with the case. That trial is expected to hear evidence that Pell “sexually offended” two men when they were boys playing games in a swimming pool in Ballarat, Victoria. At the time of the allegations, which date back to the ’70s when Pell was a priest in the area, according to The Guardian.
The Washington Post reported last night that Pope Francis shuffled around his advisory council, informally known as the C9, just before news of the verdicts emerged. Pell and another accused cardinal got the boot, as well as a retired cardinal who might just be unfortunately juxtaposed:
The Vatican on Wednesday did not address the explosive case, but it did announce that in October Pope Francis had removed Pell from his advisory group known as the Council of Cardinals, along with a Chilean cardinal, Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, who is accused of covering up for abusive priests. (A third cleric — Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya — was also removed from the council but has no known connections to abuse and recently retired from his position as the archbishop of Kinshasa.)
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Francis was “thanking them for the work they have done over these past five years.” Francis’s tepid responses on specific cases related to high-ranking clerics and abuse have sent his favorability rates plunging. The Vatican announcement came after the council’s latest meeting.
Why did Francis keep Pell in place for this long? For one thing, Pell has insisted — “vehemently” — that the charges were false. Another organization, or practically every other organization, might have cut Pell loose long before this. The Vatican moves slowly, however, which is one reason the Post notes that Francis’ responses have seemed “tepid.”
Crux’ Christopher White predicts this will shake loose the Vatican from its tepidity:
In a decision that will undoubtedly create shockwaves around the globe, Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Church official to stand trial for sexual abuse, was found guilty on Tuesday by a Melbourne Court.
In one of the most closely watched trials in modern Catholic Church history, after nearly four full days of deliberations, a jury rendered unanimous guilty verdicts on five charges related to the abuse of two choirboys in 1996. …
Earlier this year, the Australian Catholic Church unveiled its official response to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the nation’s highest form of inquiry.
The Royal Commission revealed last year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia over the past several decades, and in response, the Church accepted 98 percent of its 80 recommendations, deciding only against the recommendation that the Church eliminate the seal of the confessional.
The Pell verdict and the Church’s response to the Royal Commission comes at a time in which the global Catholic Church is struggling to combat the issue of clerical sexual abuse.
This conviction and the sentencing in February will put an even bigger spotlight on Pope Francis and his actions on dealing with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Here in the US, it will raise questions yet again as to why the Vatican pressed the US Conference of Catholic Bishops last month to slow their effort to update and expand the charter that requires more action and accountability. The Vatican wanted to wait until February and to have bishops act in global concert.
Now that will take place at around the same time the Vatican’s third-ranking prelate gets sentenced by an Australian court for sexual abuse. Wouldn’t it have been better to have those actions in place by that time? At the very least, it would have given whatever follows more credibility as a self-directed reform effort rather than a hastily arranged reaction. Unfortunately, the church has offered too much of the latter and very little of the former over the past two decades of dealing with this scourge.