By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The day Australian Cardinal George Pell was jailed in Melbourne after being found guilty of child sexual abuse, the Vatican announced his case would be investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“After the guilty verdict in the first instance concerning Cardinal Pell, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will now handle the case following the procedure and within the time established by canonical norm,” Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Vatican press office, said Feb. 27.
A court in Melbourne ordered that Cardinal Pell be taken into custody Feb. 27; he is scheduled to be sentenced March 13 on five charges related to the sexual abuse of two 13-year-old boys in the late 1990s when he was archbishop of Melbourne. The cardinal continues to affirm his innocence and plans to appeal the verdict.
Cardinal Pell, a former archbishop of Sydney, took a leave of absence in mid-2017 from his position as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy. The Vatican confirmed Feb. 26 that the cardinal’s five-year term as prefect ended Feb. 24.
The canonical investigation of Cardinal Pell announced by the Vatican is not the first Church investigation of allegations against him; in June 2002, then-Archbishop Pell stepped aside as archbishop of Sydney while an independent Church review board investigated a claim that he sexually abused a 12-year-old boy at a youth camp in 1961 while a seminarian. The board found insufficient evidence to corroborate the accusations.
When a deacon, priest or bishop is accused of abuse, the first phase of the investigation generally is carried out by the diocese where the abuse is alleged to have occurred. For instance, in the case of Theodore E. McCarrick, the former cardinal dismissed from the clerical state Feb. 16, the initial investigation was carried out by the Archdiocese of New York, and once the allegations were determined to be credible, the case was handed over to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Vatican statement Feb. 27 did not mention an archdiocesan inquiry, but apparently that is not necessary in cases where there is a criminal court conviction.
According to information posted by the Vatican in conjunction with the summit Feb. 21-24 on abuse, when the doctrinal congregation opens a process, two modes of proceeding are possible: either with a trial or with a shorter administrative process. In both cases, the accused has the right and opportunity to know the evidence against him and to respond.
If found guilty, the penalties can vary depending on the seriousness of the crime and, often, the age of the accused; possible penalties include removal from office, restricted ministry, “a life of prayer and penance” without any public ministry and dismissal from the clerical state.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, said in a statement Feb. 26 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,” the archbishop 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 for the five counts: one count of “sexual penetration,” in this case oral sex, and four counts of indecent acts with or in the presence of a minor under 16 years of age. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The judge may order him jailed pending the appeal.
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 who cannot be named, who testified in Cardinal Pell’s trial, released a statement saying he had experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle” as a result of the abuse.
“At some point we realize 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, Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, 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 Brennan wrote. “The archbishop arrived unaccompanied, castigated them and then, while fully robed in his copious liturgical vestments, proceeded to commit three vile sexual acts, including oral penetration of the complainant.”
Cardinal Pell’s lawyers, he said, called witnesses who cast doubt on the possibility that the two boys left the procession unseen, that the cardinal returned to the sacristy alone and that, wearing full liturgical vestments, he could have “parted” or moved his alb to the side to expose himself to the boys.
“Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him,” Fr. Brennan Brennan wrote. “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.