Advocates for victims are already hailing the sentence as a major breakthrough. “The mental image of the powerful cardinal behind bars will do more to deter corrupt bishops than anything Pope Francis has done to date,” Anne Barrett Doyle, who runs the advocacy group BishopAccountability.org, said in a statement.
Pell, 77, was convicted of three counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child and one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16. A first trial against the cardinal ended in August with a hung jury and a mistrial. Then, in a retrial in November, a jury found Pell guilty.
The latest set of hearings unfolded mostly in a media blackout because of Australia’s defamation laws, which are favorable to plaintiffs. But with Pell’s sentencing this week, new and grim details have emerged. One of the victims, who was 13 at the time of the abuse, testified that Pell had pushed both him and another 13-year-old boy toward the cardinal’s genitals, and that Pell had then put his penis into the boy’s mouth, before telling him to remove his pants, touching himself and the boy at the same time, according to The New York Times.
Pell has declared his innocence and has said he will appeal the conviction. As is often the case in trials about sexual abuse, there is no corroborating evidence, which pits the word of the victims against the word of the cardinal. The transcripts have not been made public.
One of Pell’s strongest defenders has been George Weigel, a prominent Catholic author and commentator. Writing in National Review last month, Weigel noted, “Before the trial, one of the complainants died, having told his mother that he had never been assaulted. During the trial, there was no corroboration of the surviving complainant’s charges.” Last month, Weigel wrote a vehement defense of Pell—who he said was a friend of 50 years—comparing the atmosphere in Australia to the Salem witch trials, and asserting that the Australian police had overreached and gone on a “fishing expedition” against the cardinal.
But the reach—or even the possible overreach—of civil authorities is a response to the dramatic under-reach by the Church for so many years, when the dominant culture was one of evasion and cover-up, and when cases sent from local dioceses to the Vatican languished in a backlog in its doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Vatican has said that the CDF will conduct its own investigation into Pell, which could lead to a Church trial. Once again, the wheels of Vatican justice grind far more slowly than those of civil justice.
By most accounts, Francis is aware of that. Last month, he held a rare meeting at the Vatican on protecting children in the Church. It was aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of clergy who might not have understood the depth of the abuse crisis. The summit was a giant step for the Vatican, but a small one for victims’ groups, who wanted more concrete measures. In the coming weeks, Francis is expected to issue an apostolic letter that will address the abuse crisis. But it will take more than the fine print of a motu proprio, as such letters are called, to end the crisis. The momentum here is in the civil courts, not Vatican City.
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