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Jim McDermottFebruary 28, 2019
Australian Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne on Feb. 27. (CNS photo/Daniel Pockett, AAP images via Reuters)

Aug. 21, 2019, update: On Aug. 21, the Victorian Court of Appeal dismissed Cardinal Pell’s appeal over his conviction for child sexual abuse. Cardinal Pell’s legal team has indicated they will prepare an appeal to Australia’s High Court, the final arbiter on such cases. For now Cardinal Pell returns to prison, where he is serving a six year sentence. He is currently eligible for parole in October 2022. America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, reports on the appeal dismissal here.

Cardinal Pell’s legal team had appealed the original decision on three grounds: that the jury’s guilty verdict was unreasonable given the evidence; that the judge’s decision not to allow the cardinal’s lawyers to present a 19-minute video animation during their closing presentation negatively affected their ability to present their case; and that keeping the jury in a separate room from the court proceedings due to its size constituted a fundamental irregularity.

The three justices hearing the appeal voted unanimously to reject the second and third grounds. By a 2-1 vote, they rejected the first ground. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson indicated the court found this standard was not met: “We decided there was nothing about the complainant’s evidence that meant the jury must have had a doubt about the complainant’s account. This was a compelling witness, clearly not a liar, not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.”

Justice Mark Weinberg disagreed, saying he found the account of the second incident of abuse  “entirely implausible” and “not convincing” and that he “might well have found it difficult to say the jury was acting reasonably” in convicting Cardinal Pell.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, until recently one of the highest ranking officials in the Vatican, spent his first night in jail, after being convicted in December on four counts of an indecent act with a child under 16 and one count of sexual penetration of a child. Though his final sentencing will not occur until March 13 and his lawyers are appealing the conviction, the cardinal decided to withdraw his petition for bail, believing “it is appropriate for him to await sentencing.”

This comes after his lead attorney, Robert Richter, stunned a full courtroom during an initial sentencing hearing by seeming to diminish the severity of the acts for which Cardinal Pell was convicted. Mr. Richter said that, if the acts happened at all, they lasted “less than six minutes” and constituted “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case.” (People in the courtroom reportedly gasped at Mr. Richter’s comments.)

There are elements in the trial of Cardinal Pell that do not easily translate to a U.S. context. Until news of his conviction was reported by international press in December, few in Australia even knew the trial was happening. Though much of the proceedings were open to the public, journalists were prohibited from writing about the trial in any way, even to mention that it was in process, as part of a suppression order meant to prevent bias from affecting the judgment of the juries hearing this case and the second abuse allegation case that was to follow. (The second case ended up being dismissed at the start of this week, which led to the suppression order being lifted and Cardinal Pell’s public sentencing hearing.)

I spent a week in Melbourne this autumn sitting in on the trial; other than a handful of journalists there was no one else in the gallery, except for one day when a group of teenagers in their school uniforms came in unexpectedly during the examination of a witness. They sat silently in a row in this small courtroom, their presence a haunting reminder to all of us of the many children who have been victimized by Catholic priests. They left just as abruptly as they arrived.

Until news of his conviction was reported by international press in December, few in Australia even knew the trial was happening.

Cardinal Pell’s accuser was never present in the court; nor is his name or the name of his now-deceased co-victim public knowledge. The man’s testimony was given via video in a closed session of the court, the transcripts of which have not been—and may never be—released. That is a point worth remembering; any details you might read about how in 1996 the accuser and his friend, both aged 13, were assaulted in a sacristy by then-Archbishop Pell immediately following a Sunday Mass at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral are drawn only from the questions asked of other witnesses by the prosecution and defense.

No one but the jury, the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys has heard or read the actual testimony of the victim. In fact, the jury that convicted Cardinal Pell in December was only seeing a replay of the testimony and questions presented before a prior jury in the case, which was dismissed in late September after it failed to reach an 11-1 decision about Cardinal Pell’s guilt. (The Australian journalist Louise Milligan did publish a book about the cardinal that includes an account of the assaults; an excerpt can be found here.)

Considering Cardinal Pell’s history

In the days since the suppression order has been lifted and Cardinal Pell’s conviction has been reported in the Australian press, questions have been raised about the jury’s decision, given certain details deduced from the testimony against him. Among them: The cardinal supposedly opened his vestments to reveal himself to the victims (vestments do not, in fact, open but are rather pulled on and off over one’s head); he rushed back to the sacristy immediately after Sunday Mass, as opposed to the standard practice of staying to greet parishioners, and he did so unaccompanied by the aides who would normally be with him at all times; and the door to the sacristy was open while the children were being assaulted, but despite the busyness of the cathedral after Mass, there were no witnesses to the assault.

A few commentators in Australia have declared Cardinal Pell “a scapegoat” for the nation’s outrage following a recently completed, five-year national commission into child sexual abuse that brought out thousands of horrific stories of cover-up and abuse within the Australian Catholic Church. In the United States, George Weigel (who disclosed that he is a friend of Cardinal Pell) wrote in the National Review that “the verdict could not rationally have been reached on the basis of the evidence” and questioned the case for the lack of a corroborating witness to the accuser’s story.

Frank Brennan, S.J., the chief executive officer of Catholic Social Services Australia, spent many days at the trial and wrote in the Catholic periodical Eureka Street: “I was very surprised by the verdict. In fact, I was devastated…. The jury must nevertheless have thought—as the recent royal commission discussed—that children who are sexually violated do not always remember details of time, place, dress and posture. Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him.”

“Although the complainant got all sorts of facts wrong, the jury must have believed that Pell did something dreadful to him.”

To think that a jury might find it difficult to consider Cardinal Pell objectively is not beyond question. The cardinal has been connected to issues of sexual abuse and cover-up stemming from his earliest days as a parish priest. In the early 1970s he lived with one of Australia’s most notorious serial pedophiles, Father Gerald Ridsdale, and was on a diocesan committee that oversaw Father Ridsdale being moved to new parishes four times in five years, yet he claimed he never knew anything about Father Ridsdale’s crimes. (Father Ridsdale would later be convicted of abuse and assault against 65 children.)

In the 1990s, as archbishop of Melbourne, rather than join the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s national response to abuse, Cardinal Pell announced his own program a few weeks beforehand, called the Melbourne Response. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse determined that the Melbourne Response discouraged victims from going to police, had conflicts of interest that prevented it from serving the needs of victims and put a cap on redress that the A.C.B.C.’s program did not have, creating a situation in which there was no consistency of outcomes across the country.

As archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Pell would also create the “Ellis Defense,” which argued that the assets of a diocese could not be targeted as compensation for abuse perpetrated by any individual. In 2014 testimony before the Royal Commission, Cardinal Pell reasserted the defense, saying, “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate, because it is contrary to the policy, for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”

In 2002, then-Archbishop Pell was accused of having molested a 12-year-old boy at a church camp while he was a seminarian. An inquiry into the accusation found not enough evidence to charge Archbishop Pell, but the judge stated that while the archbishop “gave the impression of being truthful,” he also found that his accuser seemed to “speak honestly from an actual recollection.” A year later, Pope John Paul II elevated the archbishop to cardinal. In 2014, Pope Francis promoted him to the role of prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, having named him as one of his council of cardinal advisers in 2013.

The jury was instructed by Judge Peter Kidd, “This is not an opportunity to make Cardinal Pell a scapegoat for the failures of the Catholic Church.”

Cardinal Pell’s attorney himself told jurors before their deliberations: “You would have had to live on the moon to not be aware of [Cardinal Pell’s reputation]. Archbishop Pell was portrayed as the Darth Vader of the Catholic Church.” Before retiring for their deliberations, the jury was likewise instructed by Judge Peter Kidd, “This is not an opportunity to make Cardinal Pell a scapegoat for the failures of the Catholic Church.”

But to characterize the verdict against Cardinal Pell as the result of bias smacks to many of the same assumptions of privilege that have become a cancer in the church: Members of a jury, presumably including laypeople, are assumed not to be capable of understanding the details of internal church matters or fairly judging a senior cleric.

While I was in Australia, I was struck by how vehemently those I talked to rejected any thought of giving a guilty verdict to punish the cardinal for his longstanding poor treatment of abuse victims and their families. Even people I knew to be strong opponents of Cardinal Pell insisted a false conviction would constitute no form of justice.

None of which is to say the jury might not have gotten it wrong. One Australian expert says that Cardinal Pell has a good chance of winning on appeal.

In the meantime, the conviction of the cardinal is another painful reminder of the many Catholics, like his accuser, who have spent decades struggling to survive—and others, like the accuser’s friend and co-victim, who later died of a drug overdose his family believes was linked to his abuse.

As though picked for the occasion, the Gospel on Tuesday spoke to just how far the church has fallen short of the path of Jesus: “Then Jesus sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one child such as this in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the One who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37).

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Crystal Watson
5 years 3 months ago

It's not just children who don't always remember details of an attack, though the attack did indeed happen. This subject came up when Kavanaugh was accused by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. From the BBC - Why sexual assault survivors forget details

Colin Jory
5 years 3 months ago

Like the proverbial vicar's egg, this report is good in parts -- indeed, good except in small parts. Yet those small parts matter, in that they imply that there are firm grounds for at least suspecting that in his past Pell knew about and covered up some priestly abuse of minors. The author's key relevant words are, "The cardinal has been connected to issues of sexual abuse and cover-up stemming from his earliest days as a parish priest."

The fact, related by the author, that as a junior priest in the Ballarat diocese Pell shared a presbytery with the notorious paedophile Father Gerard Ridsdale was howled and bellowed by the Leftist media from the late 1990s until a few years ago as "proof" that Pell "must have known" about Ridsdale's predations, then suddenly there was silence on the issue. Why? Because a prominent TV journalist with impeccable Leftist credentials, Paul Bongiorno, a layman, stated publicly that when young he was for several years a priest of the Ballarat diocese; that he spent six months as a junior priest under Ridsdale in the latter's presbytery; and that he never had the faintest inkling of Ridsdale's predations. As for the author's statement that Dr Pell "was on a diocesan committee that oversaw Father Ridsdale being moved to new parishes four times in five years", this is flat false. The relevant priests' committee was never involved in decisions regarding the movement of priests: the bishop, the late Ronald Mulkearns, always made the decisions without consulting the committee.

Regarding Mulkearns, here is a relevant fact not hitherto published, although I have communicated it to key persons. In 2004 or 2005 at the presbytery in Uranna, in the New South Wales diocese of Wagga Wagga, I and the then-parish priest, who still lives, were told by the late Father Joseph Conway that he had been told personally by the late Monsignor Brian Twomey, an outstandingly honourable, intelligent and prominent priest of the Melbourne archdiocese, as follows. In the 1950s, when Twomey and Mulkearns were in the Melbourne archdiocesan seminary together, Mulkearns had approached him, clad only in a towel and in a state which showed he was homosexual, and invited him to join a discussion group with "advanced views" on sexual morality. Twomey didn't. What I am suggesting is that when Mulkearns was bishop of Ballarat any actively homosexual clergy in his once-splendid diocese, including paedophile ones, would have known what Mulkearns had been up to; and because Mulkearns would have known they knew, he would have been fearful of acting against them (even if he was disposed to do so) lest they "spill the beans" on him.

Regarding J. Brookbank's glib comment: if Pell's accuser is to be believed, Pell must have somehow held up his outer vestments; tugged his inner ones -- despite their being tied tightly at his waist by a cincture -- around his body until one of the side-slots which allow access to trouser pockets was at the front; taken his penis out of his trousers and through the slot; held the complainants head; then forced him to take the penis into his mouth. J. Brookbank might like to borrow a priest's vestments from somewhere and attempt this amazing feat of dexterity, contortionism, and strength himself. It will help if he was born with three or four arms.

Lisa M
5 years 3 months ago

Colin- Thanks so much for the information.

Stefan Svilich
5 years 3 months ago

Why are the defense attorney's comments so shocking? The guy was doing his job: representing a client in a difficult case. Try hanging out in the criminal courts for a day or two - it will be an education.

Christopher Lochner
5 years 3 months ago

Certain parts of this defense do not pass the "smell test". The opening of garments/Cannot the garments be pulled up from the front (as if someone had to relieve himself quickly, doesn't this happen)? He rushed back to the sacristy unaccompanied/ I've seen this many times when an individual has a plane to catch. The door was open/ The prevaiing courtesy is if one does not have business in the sacristy and is not invited in then one does not enter. It would be quite rude to barge in....These are petty responses to a petty defense.

arthur mccaffrey
5 years 3 months ago

this whole story simply reinforces the need for abuse to be detected and reported early--no SOLs, no coverups, just call the cops and create a very timely record of what happened. If you tell the police what happened yesterday, rather than 25 years later, you will have a better chance of being believed........AND the abuser can be caught sooner, thus saving other victims.

Phillip Stone
5 years 3 months ago

Out in the real world, many women are raped by people known to them and people who are complete strangers.

An enormous percentage of the offenders get away scott free with it for numerous reasons.

No action by the civil society, changes in the criminal law or the magic transformative power of socialism will ever change this.

Counterculturally and being extremely politically incorrect, I believe we should return to older practices.
Concepts like chaperones, modesty in dress and prudent sobriety come to mind. After all, they were developed as a result of experience and having solicitous love for the children and precious and vulnerable.

Judith Jordan
5 years 3 months ago

Philip Stone---
I suggest that it is you who are advocating political correctness. Your recommendation that we should return to older practices such as “chaperones and modesty in dress” etc. are responsibilities that have traditionally been placed on women, not men.

It reminds me of a time when Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel. She was asked to place a curfew on women to end a series of rapes. She refused, saying, "But it is the men who are attacking the women. If there is to be a curfew, let the men stay at home."

Needless to say, the idea of a curfew was dropped.

Dr Robert Dyson
5 years 3 months ago

Hmm ... Immediately after Mass he would have been wearing a cassock, an alb and cincture over it, and a chasuble on top of that; presumably the boy who was 'penetrated' was fully clothed also; the assault was perpetrated against two boys in the presence of each other (each of whom would therefore be a witness to the assault on the other); the whole thing was over in a few minutes; and took place in a room with the door open. I am by disposition a sceptic, but this seems to me a thoroughly unsafe conviction. Could it be that what we have here are two naughty boys who got torn off a strip for pinching the communion wine, decided to tell a juicy lie by way of payback and then found that they had woven a web too tangled to get out of?

Christopher Minch
5 years 3 months ago

I will leave the final determination of guilt or innocence to the appeals court in this specific instance. I do believe though that Cardinal Pell is an enabler and covered-up these pedophile priests and religious. He did so to avoid scandal but also even more so to prevent the church from possible financial ruin that would come from lawsuits. As such he was acting more as a Churchman and not a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus warned us against the rich and well to do and to settle quickly with your opponent or you will have to settle in court where you will have to pay to your last penny. Cardinal Pell instead again chose the path of the brash and the big-mouthed and now is paying because many in his country seem him as a bully and are pushing back against him now in the court of law. Sad day for everyone as justice gets mired in religious cupidity, stupidity, arrogance, accountability, and an unjust clericalism and is a far cry from proclaiming God's love, truth, justice and salvation for us and the world. The Church needs to admit its guilt and complicity totally in this heinous crime naming both the pedophile religious and their enablers. And should pay the just price as determined by law and righteousness for what was done in robbing these children of their souls and psychological well-being. It is about justice for these children.

Dr Robert Dyson
5 years 3 months ago

But nothing of what you say bears on the question of whether Cardinal Pell is guilty of the offences of which he has been accused

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