The Vatican issued a low-key, carefully worded statement following the decision of the Victoria Court of Appeal in Australia to dismiss Cardinal George Pell’s appeal to have his conviction for the sexual abuse of two boys in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the mid-1990s overturned.
The statement was given by Matteo Bruni, the new director of the Holy See Press Office, early Wednesday morning, Aug. 21, and focused on three points: the Australian judicial system, Cardinal Pell and the victims of sexual abuse.
It began by reiterating the Holy See’s “respect for the Australian judicial system,” as it did on February 26 after the first instance verdict was announced, and noting that the Holy See “acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal.”
The Court of Appeal judges described the survivor on whose testimony Pell was convicted as “a very compelling witness, [who] was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist, and was a witness of truth.”
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This was in reference to the 2-1 decision by three judges of the Court of Appeal to dismiss the cardinal’s appeal to overturn his conviction on the grounds that the conviction was “unreasonable” and could not be supported by the evidence. In a summary statement read by the chief justice and livestreamed internationally, the judges described the survivor on whose testimony Pell was convicted as “a very compelling witness, [who] was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist, and was a witness of truth.”
The three judges voted unanimously to reject two other grounds of appeal. The first regarded the refusal of the judge in the original trial to allow a video animation of events in the cathedral to be shown in the closing phase of that trial. The second regarded the court’s decision in that trial to have the cardinal testify by video link rather than in person before the jury.
A right to appeal
The second part of the Vatican statement focused on Cardinal Pell. It recalled that “the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process” and affirmed “that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.” It did so as the cardinal’s legal advisors examine the reasons for the Court of Appeal’s decision and consider making an appeal to the High Court, which is the final possibility in the Australian judicial system for a reversal of his conviction.
The 78-year old cardinal was present in the Melbourne court room for the reading of a summary of the verdict and looked frail according to persons present. After the summary statement was read, Cardinal Pell was sent back to prison to serve a six-year sentence. If the Australian High Court does not reverse his conviction, he will not be eligible for parole until Oct. 2022.
Cardinal Pell was sent back to prison to serve a six-year sentence. If the Australian High Court does not reverse his conviction, he will not be eligible for parole until Oct. 2022.
Solidarity with victims
The Vatican statement concluded “at this time, together with the Church in Australia, the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse.” This paragraph can be read not just as an expression of solidarity with victims of sexual abuse by clergy in Australia, but also as an allusion to the decision of Pope Francis earlier this year to order a Vatican investigation into the allegations of abuse of minors by Cardinal Pell. This investigation is underway, but the Vatican has not disclosed any other information about it. Sources say investigators expect to hear from all the victims and complainants of sexual abuse by the cardinal, and also to consider documentation from the Australian judicial process that has been made public. If that investigation shows that there is credible evidence that Cardinal Pell has abused minors, then the matter would be referred directly to Pope Francis—who could decide to remove the Australian prelate from the college of cardinals and from the priesthood.
Pope Francis earlier this year ordered a Vatican investigation into the allegations of abuse of minors by Cardinal Pell.
The Vatican news media carried reactions from members of the Australian church, beginning with a spokesperson for the cardinal who issued a statement after the verdict that “Cardinal Pell is obviously disappointed with the decision.” It noted that his legal team will be examining the judgment of the Court of Appeal “to determine a special-leave application to the High Court.” (The High Court is not required to hear an appeal.) It reiterated that the cardinal “maintains his innocence.”
Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, issued a statement saying that “[t]he Catholic Bishops of Australia believe all Australians must be equal under the law and accept today’s judgement accordingly.”
Cardinal Pell served as archbishop of the archdioceses of both Melbourne and Sydney at different times, and both his successors gave their reactions to today’s verdict. Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli acknowledged that the long judicial process of Cardinal Pell has been a difficult moment for the survivors of sexual abuse by clergy. He noted also that the court’s verdict “will be distressing to many people” but said he “respectfully” received that decision and urged others to do likewise. He acknowledged “the complexity of the search for truth” and said his “thoughts and prayers are with the man who brought this matter before the courts.” He expressed his readiness to provide “pastoral and spiritual help” to the plaintiff, and he gave assurance too that Cardinal Pell would be provided with “pastoral and spiritual support while he serves the remainder of his sentence.”
Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher noted in his statement that the judges’ 2-1 split decision “is consistent with the different views of the juries in the first and second trials, as well as the divided opinion amongst legal commentators and the general public.” He encouraged everyone “to maintain calm and civility” and committed himself and the archdiocese of Sydney to do everything possible “to ensure that past crimes are never repeated and that Church environments are the safest possible for children and vulnerable adults.”
Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference: “The Catholic Bishops of Australia believe all Australians must be equal under the law and accept today’s judgement accordingly.”
Australian media carried a statement from the survivor/victim whose testimony led to the cardinal’s conviction and whose identity has not been revealed. In the first part of his statement, issued through his pro bono lawyer, he said “I am relieved at the decision of the Court of Appeal. It is four years since I reported to the police. The criminal process has been stressful. The journey has taken me to places that, in my darkest moments, I feared I could not return from.”
“The justice machine rolls on with all of its processes and punditry, almost forgetting about the people at the heart of the matter. Despite this, I appreciate that the criminal process afforded Pell every opportunity to challenge the charges and to be heard,” he added. “I am glad he had the best legal representation money can buy. There are a lot of checks and balances in the criminal justice system and the appeal process is one of them. I just hope that it is all over now.”
He recalled that “some commentators have suggested that I reported to the police somehow for my own personal gain. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have risked my privacy, my health, my wellbeing, my family. I have not instructed any solicitor in relation to a claim for compensation. This is not about money and never has been.”
He also denied “that I am somehow out to cause damage to the Catholic Church,” noting that “I’m not on a mission to do anybody any harm. Although my faith has taken a battering it is still a part of my life, and part of the lives of my loved ones.”
He concluded his lengthy statement by noting “I am grateful for a legal system that everyone can believe in, where everybody is equal before the law and no one is above the law.”
Cardinal Pell (along with others) will have to return to court next year to face a case for civil damages brought by other victims of alleged sexual abuse.