By Jean Charles Putzolu and Roberto Piermarini
Cardinal George Pell, 77, former Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two children under the age of sixteen when he was Archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990’s.
He was appointed to Melbourne in 1996, and transferred to Sydney in 2001. Two years later, he was created Cardinal. Pope Francis invited him to join the Council of Cardinals, the body that assists the Pope in the reform of the Roman Curia, in 2013. George Pell left Sydney, Australia, where he had been Archbishop since 2001, and moved to Rome.
Royal Australian Commission
In 2014 he was called for the first time to testify before the Royal Australian Commission that investigates sexual abuse. Between December 2015 and February 2016, he faced further accusations of protecting other priests from abuse committed against children in the 1970’s. He replied to the Australian Commission by video conference from Rome on 29 February 2016, and denied being aware of the events in his home Diocese of Ballarat.
In October 2016, the Cardinal was questioned by two detectives from the Australian police taskforce in Rome, this time on charges of paedophilia in his former diocese of Melbourne. At the end of June 2017, he was formally accused of sexual violence against a minor. The Ballarat police authorities then provided only partial information and reported several complaints, without giving further details.
Called to appear before a court on July 26th, Cardinal Pell left the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy in order to defend himself. He has always claimed that the charges against him are unfounded and that he considers sexual abuse a "horrible crime".
Protection of Minors
The Cardinal has constantly condemned abuses committed against minors as “immoral and intolerable”. He supported the creation by Pope Francis of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in Rome, and when he was a Bishop in Australia, he established procedures to protect minors and provide assistance to victims.
George Pell was the subject of a separate trial regarding other allegations of misconduct, but the charges were withdrawn on the basis of insufficient evidence. The Court had imposed a media blackout in order to avoid influencing the legal proceedings in progress.
The unanimous guilty verdict was handed down by 12 jury members at the County Court of Victoria, Australia, after more than two days of deliberation. The verdict was decided on December 11th but only made public today. Sentencing hearings will begin tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Cardinal continues to plead innocent and his lawyer plans to appeal.
Australian Bishops’ Conference reaction
The President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, has issued a statement in the name of the Conference, that reads as follows:
“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. 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. 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.”
Father Zollner: we await the outcome of the appeal
On the case regarding Cardinal Pell, Federico Piana of Radio Vaticana Italia spoke to Father Hans Zollner, member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors and president of the Center for the Protection of Children established at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
A. The process has been quite troubling from what I have heard from a distance... Then there are some things even within the Australian judicial system that for us Europeans are really strange. For example: for months it was known that he had been found guilty, but without the possibility of talking about it and knowing the reasons for it. Now we know, he has been convicted. Now he will appeal, of course, and then let's see what comes out. In any case, any person regardless of role or position if he has committed a crime must be punished. I am not a lawyer and I do not know this system which seems to me to be very complex... Now, we are at the first instance ‘first stage in the legal process’, the cardinal will appeal and then we will see what the outcome will be. We have already had the case of Archbishop [Philip] Wilson of Adelaide who in the first instance was convicted not of abuse, but of having ‘covered up' and in the second instance was acquitted... So let's see what will come out in this case.