Why George Pell's conviction for child sexual abuse is significant

Australia’s most senior Catholic was once considered a likely successor to Pope Francis.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, considered one of the most important figures in the Catholic Church, has been found guilty of historical child sexual offences.

The guilty verdict was delivered on 11 December 2018 but couldn't be reported until Tuesday.

In Melbourne’s County Court, a 12-member jury unanimously found Pell guilty on five charges of “historical child sexual offences”. One related to alleged sexual offences committed at the cathedral in Melbourne.

The 77-year-old was found guilty of sexually abusing a choirboy and molesting another.

One charge related to alleged sexual offences committed at the cathedral in Melbourne.

He has vehemently maintained his innocence.

George Pell departs the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Source: AAP

Pell, who became a cardinal in 2003 and was appointed the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy in 2014, is the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to stand trial for sex abuse.

Why couldn’t the trial be reported on?

Pope Francis removed Pell from his inner circle of advisors after news of the conviction filtered back to the Vatican in December.

But a court suppression order meant Australian media was barred from reporting the conviction immediately – it did not apply to overseas media.

The suppression order was lifted on Tuesday.

Pell was first tried for the charges in June 2018 but the hearing ended with a hung jury. Prosecutors immediately retried the case.

Who is George Pell?

Pell's conviction represents a major fall from grace for the man who was once the third most senior figure in the Vatican hierarchy.

Pell rose to the ranks of Archbishop in 1996, serving in Melbourne, and later Sydney, over the course of almost two decades.

He then became cardinal and then treasurer of the Vatican.

Some Church insiders once considered Pell a likely papal successor for Pope Francis.

Pell arrives for a meeting at the Vatican in 2013.
Source: AP/AAP

The boy from Ballarat became a proud traditionalist and defender of Catholic doctrine. He gained a reputation for opposing same-sex marriage, the ordination of women and the morning-after pill.

Upon becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Pell set up the ‘Melbourne Response’: a world-first investigation into complaints of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Melbourne that later received criticism for offering inadequate support to victims.

As Archbishop of Sydney in 2001, he managed the Church's response to allegations of sexual abuse. The following year, he stood aside as Archbishop, accused of molesting a former altar boy at a camp in 1961. Pell vehemently denied the claims and a judge ruled they were unsubstantiated.

In 2012, then-prime minister Julia Gillard ordered a Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse within Australian institutions.

“There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil,” she said at the time.

Pell promised his full co-operation but when it was time to testify he said his heart condition prevented him from travelling back to Australia. In 2016 he instead gave evidence on a number of charges via video link from Rome.

There was never a suggestion during the Royal Commission that Pell was a perpetrator, he was questioned about what he knew and what he did to address it. At times he struggled with his memory of events.

Then prime minister Julia Gillard meets with Pell at a hospital opening in 2012.
Source: AAP

“It was common knowledge and the general conviction was that it was harmless enough,” he told the inquiry when asked why he did not report his historical knowledge of Brother Gerald Leo Fitzgerald's kissing of primary school boys at a school in Ballarat.

“But with the experience of 40 years later, certainly, I would agree that I should have done more.”

In 2014 George Pell's time in Sydney came to an end when he was further promoted to Vatican Treasurer. He was then among the three most senior figures in the Church hierarchy, observers touted him a potential Papal successor - but allegations from the past surfaced again.

In 2017 George Pell was charged with historic sex offences against multiple complainants, which lead to last year’s conviction.

What happens now?

Pell is due to be taken into custody on 27 February before sentencing in March.

It is widely expected Pell will be asked to leave the Church. If he does step down, he'll be the third Cardinal in five years to retire because of sexual misconduct.

Child protection organisations told SBS News Pell's conviction sets an important precedent.

Hetty Johnston: "Nobody is out of reach of the law".
Source: SBS News

Hetty Johnston is the chair of Bravehearts, an organisation she founded following her young daughter’s disclosure of sexual assault in 1997.

“The message that it sends is that nobody is out of reach of the law,” she said. 

“Nobody gets to harm a child because they’re richer or more famous than everybody else. So to all survivors everywhere: don’t be frightened of the person who has done this to you. Take your complaints to police, and justice will be served.”

She wants to see Pell jailed. 

“When these offenders are found guilty and not punished appropriately, it just lets everybody down, including this generation of children.”

Constant Mews, the Director of Monash University’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology, told SBS News that Pell’s seniority within the Church means his departure could be a catalyst for change.

“The public image that he has is so large that people desperately want to move away from that generation, people provoking new ways of addressing this situation,” he said.

Constant Mews says Pell's departure from the Church would be a catalyst for change.
Source: SBS News

Professor Mews said the most important issue now is not just reforming areas of the Church relating to allegations of child sexual abuse, but increasing transparency across the entire institution.

"I think the issue is bigger than simply moral lapses. The larger issue is the ability to talk about difficulties confronting the church.”

“People in the church want the leaders to speak frankly about the problems and the desire to get greater transparency within church structures.”

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.

Published 26 February 2019 at 11:07am, updated 26 February 2019 at 12:48pm
By Evan Young