“The Holy See agrees with the statement issued by the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference regarding the sentence of guilt in the first instance concerning Cardinal George Pell”, the ad-interim Director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, wrote at the beginning of a statement, commenting on the news that the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy was convicted of child sexual abuse by an Australian court. “This is painful news that, as we are well aware, has shocked many people, not only in Australia”, Gisotti continued. “As already expressed on other occasions, we have the utmost respect for the Australian judicial authorities”.
“Out of this respect, we await the outcome of the appeals process, recalling that Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the last stage of appeal”, the ad-interim director pointed out. “While awaiting the definitive judgement, we unite ourselves with the Australian bishops in praying for all victims of abuse, and reaffirm our commitment to do everything possible so that the Church might be a safe home for all, especially for children and the most vulnerable”.
“In order to ensure the course of justice, the Holy Father has confirmed the precautionary measures which had been imposed by the local Ordinary on Cardinal George Pell when he returned to Australia. That is, while awaiting the definitive assessment of the facts, as is the norm, Cardinal George Pell is prohibited from exercising public ministry and from having any voluntary contact whatsoever with minors”.
The 12-member jury delivered a unanimous verdict in the Victoria state County Court on 11 December after more than two days of deliberation, but it was only made public today. The sentencing hearing will begin tomorrow. The cardinal continues to maintain his innocence and his lawyer plans to lodge an appeal. The appeal – whose date has not yet been set – will not be heard by a jury, but by a panel of three judges. In other words, the case is still pending and will not be closed until the appeal is heard and a decision rendered.
Card. George Pell, 77, who has served as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy since 2014, was convicted of sexually abusing two minors aged 12 and 13 in the nineties, when he was auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, before becoming archbishop of the city in 1996. Created a cardinal in 2003, he was named by Pope Francis in 2013 to join the Council of Cardinals, the body assisting the Pope in the reform of the Roman Curia. George Pell left Sydney, where he has been archbishop since 2001, and moved to Rome. In 2014, he was called for the first time to testify before the Australian Royal Commission investigating sexual abuse, and between December 2015 and February 2016, he was accused of covering up child abuse committed by other priests in the seventies. He replied to the Australian Commission by video conference from Rome on 29 February 2016, and denied being aware of the events that had taken place in the Diocese of Ballarat. In October 2016, the cardinal was questioned by Australian lawyers in Rome, this time on charges of child abuse in his former Diocese of Melbourne. At the end of June 2017, he was formally accused of sexual violence against a minor. The Ballarat police later provided only partial information and reported several complaints, without giving further details. Called to appear in court on 26 July, Cardinal Pell left the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy in order to defend himself. Indeed, he has always maintained that the charges laid against him are unfounded and that he considers sexual abuse a “horrible crime”. The cardinal has constantly and firmly condemned child abuse as “immoral and intolerable”. He also supported the creation by Pope Francis of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in Rome, and when he was a Bishop in Australia, he established procedures to protect minors and provide assistance to victims. George Pell was the subject of a separate trial regarding other allegations of misconduct, but the charges were withdrawn on the basis of insufficient evidence. The Court had imposed a media blackout in order to avoid influencing the legal proceedings in progress. In particular, according to Card. Pell’s lawyers, only one of the two choirboys allegedly assaulted by Pell testified in court – but his identity was kept secret by the investigators – since the other died of an overdose in 2014. A second trial against Pell was discontinued for insufficient evidence. It concerned allegations that the cardinal had abused some boys in the seventies. Card. Pell has always maintained his innocence against these allegations. The president of the Australian Bishops Conference, Mgr. Mark Coleridge, announced that the news of Cardinal Pell’s conviction on child sexual abuse charges “has shocked many across Australia and around the world, including the Catholic Bishops of Australia”. The prelates agree that “everyone should be equal under the law”, and express their respect for the Australian legal system. They also believe that “the same legal system that delivered the verdict will consider the appeal that the Cardinal’s legal team has lodged”. “Our hope, at all times, is that through this process, justice will be served”, the statement reads. The Australian bishops also pray “for all those who have been abused and their loved ones”, and they commit themselves anew to “doing everything possible to ensure that the Church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable”.
Also today, there was news that Mgr. Coleridge is under investigation for dismissing the complaint of a woman who had offered information about child sexual abuse when he was Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn. At that time, the spokesperson for the Australian diocese had assured her that investigations would be conducted by an independent Commission, but when the woman was invited to “cooperate” with the independent investigation, she chose not to participate, and took the allegations to the media instead. Mgr. Coleridge – who gave the homily of the Mass presided over by Pope Francis last Sunday which marked the end of the meeting on “The Protection of Minors in the Church” – was ordained a bishop at Melbourne’s Cathedral in 1974 and was appointed Metropolitan Archbishop of Brisbane in 2012. He was Archbishop of Canberra from 2006 to 2012.