An Australian judge has sentenced Cardinal George Pell to six years in prison for the sexual abuse of two choirboys in Melbourne Cathedral in the late 1990s and has decreed that the cardinal has to serve three years and eight months in prison before he can be eligible for parole.
The sentencing took place at the county court in Melbourne on March 13. It was broadcast live on national television.
Chief Judge Peter Kidd, who delivered the sentence today, was the only one seen on camera, but Cardinal Pell was in the courtroom and the judge asked him to stand for the sentencing. A person present in the courtroom, which was packed with reporters and survivors of abuse, described the cardinal as looking “tired and almost disheveled,” without a tie or collar, and wearing an open black shirt.
The total sentencing came to almost 12 years, but the penalty was reduced because of his age.
The total sentencing came to almost 12 years, but Judge Kidd reduced the penalty on four of the counts. The judge said he had given the cardinal “a shorter sentence” because of his age, “so that you can live the last part of your life in the community.”
At the same time Judge Kidd said he had to impose a sentence that was a deterrent and a punishment for what he said was “intentional offending.” He told the cardinal that “you may not live to be released from prison.” He acknowledged that his case was unique given Cardinal Pell’s career in the church and his prominent position in Australian society. He noted the widespread animosity to the cardinal, which has raised concerns for his security in prison.
One of those present in the court said the cardinal showed no reaction to his sentencing.
The judge took more than one hour to retrace the evidence on which the jury reached a unanimous verdict of guilty on each of five counts of sexual offenses by the cardinal against two 13-year-old choirboys, one of whom has since died. He described the context in which he delivered his sentence and spoke of the impact of the cardinal’s abuse on the two boys.
He said the cardinal had carried out “a brazen and forceful sexual assault on the two victims,” that included “physical aggression.” He described the assaults as “opportunistic.”
The judge said Cardinal Pell engaged in “sustained offending” with “callous indifference.” He described the offenses as “a grave breach of trust and abuse of power,” carried out with “staggering arrogance.”
Judge Kidd explained the factors that guided him in his sentencing, including the fact that the cardinal is now 77 years old, has a heart condition and a pacemaker. Cardinal Pell also has problems with his knees that required surgery, for which he had been granted bail after the Dec. 11 verdict. The judge recognized too that Cardinal Pell had lead “a blameless life” since committing these offences 22 years ago. He noted as well the character references in the cardinal’s favor.
The judge said Cardinal Pell engaged in “sustained offending” with “callous indifference.”
Judge Kidd had presided over the trial that concluded on Dec. 11, 2018 when a 12-person jury unanimously found the cardinal guilty on five counts of sexual offences against two 13-year-old choir boys inside St. Patrick’s cathedral, Melbourne, at the end of 1996 and early 1997. The maximum sentence for each of the five counts had been 10 years in prison on each count.
Cardinal Pell has repeatedly declared he is innocent of all such crimes, and his lawyers have lodged an appeal that will be heard by an Australian court in June 5-6. He will remain incarcerated as his appeal is heard.
After it was revealed two weeks ago that he had been found guilty on five counts of sexual offences against two minors, Pope Francis authorized the opening of an investigation of the Australian cardinal by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body that deals with allegations of abuse and acts as a tribunal on such cases.
Cardinal Pell is the most senior member of the Catholic Church—and the first cardinal ever—to have been sentenced to serve time in prison for such crimes. Appointed bishop and made cardinal by John Paul II, he served as one of the nine cardinal advisors to Pope Francis between 2013 and 2018 and was head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy from 2014 to 2019. His conviction and imprisonment for the sexual abuse of minors is a terrible blow to the Catholic Church, not only in Australia but worldwide.
He is the second cardinal-elector to receive a sentence this month. In France Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was given a six-month suspended prison sentence last week for covering-up an abuse case. He has also lodged an appeal.
Earlier this week, a spokesperson for Victoria’s county court told Australian media that the judge’s “sentencing remarks will be broadcast live” because the court “was committed to the principles of open justice.” Some commentators speculated that the public broadcasting was intended to counterbalance the impression that the cardinal had received privileged treatment by the court. A gag order during the trial prevented Australian and most international media from reporting the guilty verdict last December. Whatever the reason, the decision to broadcast the sentencing was seen by many as a humiliation for Cardinal Pell, and the Catholic Church which he represents.
His lawyers, led by Sydney appeals expert, Bret Walker, the cardinal’s senior counsel, have lodged a request to appeal. They will argue that the guilty verdict should be overturned on three grounds.
The first claims the verdict was “unreasonable” since it was based on the “word of one complainant alone” and contrary to the evidence of 20 witnesses who offered contrary testimony. The second is based on the fact that the judge did not allow the cardinal’s defence to use a visual aid in its closing arguments that would have shown the allegations were practically impossible. The third ground relates to a “fundamental irregularity” in the trial that stopped the cardinal from entering a not-guilty plea before the jury.
The three appeals court judges could confirm the guilty verdict, acquit Cardinal Pell or order another trial.
But even if the cardinal is acquitted, his legal problems will not end. Australian media report that one of the victims from “the swimmer’s case,” filed a civil suit against the cardinal and other parties on March 6. The complaintaint had planned to give evidence in a criminal trial before charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. This case, based on an allegation of assault in a swimming pool in Ballarat in southeast Australia’s state of Victoria, is expected to be heard in 2020, according to local media.
The Royal Commission that investigated abuse in institutions across Australia, including the Catholic Church, has yet to publish the chapter of its report that relates to Cardinal Pell. The commission had questioned the cardinal by video conference from Rome; it has withheld its findings until the judicial process against the cardinal ended to avoid prejudicing the verdict. Its report, when published, is expected to come out hard against Cardinal Pell.