Australia

Vatican backs George Pell’s right to appeal, 'acknowledges' upholding of child sex conviction

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The Vatican says George Pell "has always maintained his innocence" and has the right to challenge the rejection of his appeal against a child abuse conviction.

The Vatican has acknowledged an Australian court's decision to uphold George Pell's conviction on sexual abuse, but has avoided condemning the disgraced cardinal, saying he still has the right to another appeal.

A statement was issued hours after Pell, the former Vatican finance minister, on Wednesday lost an appeal in Melbourne against his conviction for sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys.

A court sketch of Cardinal George Pell at the Supreme Court as he listens to the judgement.
A court sketch of Cardinal George Pell at the Supreme Court as he listens to the judgement.
AAP

The decision means he will remain in prison for at least another three years.

"As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court," the statement said.

"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."

The wording and lack of condemnation from the Vatican makes it highly unlikely Pell will be defrocked any time soon - although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison did earlier indicate he was in favour of stripping him of his Order of Australia.

The PM told reporters "the courts have done their job".

"They've rendered their verdict ... That's the system of justice in this country and that must be respected," he said.

"My understanding is that this [appeal loss] would result in the stripping of the honours that are decided externally to the government."

Scott Morrison.
Scott Morrison.
AAP

However, Governor General David Hurley said that "once all legal proceedings have run their course, the Council for The order of Australia make make a recommendation". 

Vatican correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Francis X Rocca said the papal state's response was unsurprising.

“The cardinal maintains his innocence. The Vatican also has its own investigation underway and will eventually probably have its own trial and that’s a separate matter,” he told SBS News.

The Vatican claims the right to try any Catholic priest accused of crimes to ascertain the truth of the charges under church laws.

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Vatican reacts to Cardinal Pell returning to prison
Vatican reacts to Cardinal Pell returning to prison

But unlike some other cases, it is hard to find anyone in the Vatican - even among those who clashed with Pell - who believe the charges against him, Rocca said.

“If you talk to people here (in the Vatican) - people don't believe it - it is very hard to find someone in the Vatican that believes this even among Cardinal Pell's many enemies," Rocca said.

“He wasn't universally loved here, he has his fans and he has his enemies but very few people seem to believe this - that's something that distinguishes it from a lot of the other cases.”

If the Vatican does go ahead with its own trial of Pell, it would not be "secret" - but "reserved".

There were no reports on the Vatican's canonical trial of former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick until the final announcement in 2018 that he had been found guilty of sexual abuse and stripped of the cardinalate.

"It's an awkward case for the Vatican because a lot of people would think a canonical trial is just a way of contrasting the civil trial, especially if it reaches a different verdict," Rocca said.

"Another issue is that if there is a papal election before Pell turns 80 in two year’s time, will Pell be allowed to participate?"

The sentiment matches up with what Australian clergy have had to say about the trail so far.

In a statement from Archbishop Mark Coleridge of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference also said it "accept today's judgement".

"The Bishops realise that this has been and remains a most difficult time for survivors of child sexual abuse and those who support them," he said.

George Pell departs the Supreme Court of Victoria, he will now return to jail.
George Pell departs the Supreme Court of Victoria, he will now return to jail.
SBS

"We acknowledge the pain that those abused by clergy have experienced through the long process of the trials and appeal of Cardinal Pell. We also acknowledge that this judgement will be distressing to many people."

Sydney's Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher said he would pray and "continue to support survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy and other members of the Catholic Church".

"I again say how sorry I am that you were harmed by people you should have been able to trust. I am conscious how you and your loved ones have had to live with the consequences of abuse for a lifetime," he said.

While the verdict did please some victims advocates, for others like Leone Sheedy from Care Leavers Australasia Network it also brought sadness. 

She said just one verdict will never be able to mend all of the pain caused or bring justice to other child abuse victims.

Some Vatican officials criticised Pope Francis for choosing Pell to head the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy despite of the sexual abuse allegations.
Some Vatican officials criticised Pope Francis for choosing Pell to head the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy despite of the sexual abuse allegations.
AAP

"I'm happy but I am also sad about all the kids in Catholic orphanages that never got justice," she said.

"This verdict is good for people, it really is, it's encouraging. But there is also a deep sadness for care leavers, that so many perpetrators have gotten away with crimes."

Some Vatican officials criticised Pope Francis for choosing Pell to head the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy because of the sexual abuse allegations against him, even though the accusations were not made until after his Vatican appointment.

The Pope has pushed through a global system of reporting and combating clerical sexual abuse but has been criticised for errors of judgment and lack of transparency on this issue.

Those seeking information or support relating to child sexual assault can contact Bravehearts on 1800 272 831 or Blue Knot on 1300 657 380. Lifeline is available 24 hours a day on 13 11 14. 

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