ATLANTA – There’s no doubt that the conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell for “historical sexual offenses,” meaning the abuse of two altar boys in the 1990s, and his subsequent 6-year prison sentence have been among the biggest blockbuster moments in recent Catholic news.
However, the day after Pell was sentenced – he maintains his innocence, and an appeal hearing is set for June 5-6 – voices from all quarters spoke out, some hailing the sentence as an important step forward in the fight against clerical abuse, others complaining it was too light, and still others insisting they just can’t buy a guilty verdict given the evidence presented.
Pell, the former archbishop of Melbourne and the former head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison after he was found guilty in December of sexually abusing two 13-year-old boys in the 1990s. That verdict was only announced in late February, after an Australian judge lifted a strict suppression order.
Pell’s sentence marks the first time such a senior official in the Catholic Church has been convicted for the crime of sexual abuse of a minor, and it is also the first time a senior cleric will spend time behind bars for the crime.
Intense public interest in the case was illustrated by the fact that Pell’s sentencing hearing Wednesday morning in Melbourne was aired live by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
In a statement issued after the sentence was announced by Chief Justice Peter Kidd of Victoria, the surviving victim, whose identity cannot be revealed due to Australia’s laws on sexual abuse, said it was difficult “to allow myself to feel the gravity of this moment.”
“It is hard for me, for the time being, to take comfort in this outcome. I appreciate that the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child. However, there is no rest for me,” he said, adding that “everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal.”
Pell, 77, has been in custody since Feb. 27, after his bail was revoked following a pre-sentencing conference. The early June date for his appeal hearing is considered fast-tracked by Australian standards.
A first trial against Pell in August ended in a hung jury, with the majority reportedly believing Pell was innocent. However, a retrial on those charges in December ended in a unanimous conviction. The second jury found Pell guilty largely based on the testimony of one man in his 30s, who gave evidence to a closed court that the cardinal, then-Archbishop of Melbourne, forced him into oral sex in the priest’s sacristy after Mass one Sunday.
In his statement, which was read aloud outside of the courthouse by his lawyer, Viv Walter, the victim said he has done what he can in coming forward to the police “about a high-profile person,” and is now “waiting for the outcome of the appeal like everybody else.”
In comments to Australian media outlet 7 News, abuse survivor Michael Advocate said he was “really disappointed” in the six-year sentence, calling the decision “pathetic.”
“I thought six years was at the very low end of the scale… Less than four years jail time for destroying the lives of two innocent young boys? Is their life only worth two years each?” he said, adding that such a short sentence “doesn’t send any deterrent at all, it doesn’t give the victims any sense of justice.”
After the hearing, family members and loved ones of abuse survivors gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where two choirboys in the 1990s were abused, to tie ribbons in honor of victims while worshippers were arriving for an afternoon Mass.
Darryl D’Souza, a Catholic mass-goer, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that while Pell’s conviction was difficult, it did not change his belief in God.
“I think we have to wait and see what happens at the appeal,” he said, adding that “at the end of the day our faith is in God’s hands and we know people are fallible, priests are fallible too.”
A churchgoer named Kevin was more sympathetic and voiced doubt over the claims.
“Having come to his church, having attended Sunday Mass (at St. Patrick’s), having attended George Pell’s Masses, I find it very difficult to perceive,” he said, adding that he is “a little disheartened…Catholics are getting a bashing and it seems like it’s a popular thing to do.”
In an illustration of the emotion involved in the case, an advocacy group on Tuesday gathered outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral and flashed a light projection that read “crime scene.”
In comments to the press, Australian journalist Louise Milligan, who authored the 2017 book The Cardinal, said Pell “has to live with this for the rest of his life, and it’s a horrible crime and no sentence will ever make up for that.”
Other advocates said the sentence was an important step in the path toward progress.
Anne Barrett Doyle, who represents the watchdog group Bishop Accountability, told the New York Times that “the importance of this case cannot be overstated…it will set a precedent.”
Phil Nagel, an advocate for abuse victims in Ballarat, Pell’s hometown and the home of Australia’s most notorious abuser priest, Gerald Ridsdale, spoke of how Kidd in the sentencing hearing said Pell’s advanced age and poor health were taken into consideration for his sentence, saying, “Why should we take into account his age? He’s ruined lives.”
In a statement after Pell’s sentence was announced, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) voiced hope that the sentence would offer “some measure of healing to the living survivor of his abuse and comfort and closure for the family of Pell’s non-surviving victim.”
Given that “painfully few” sex offenders are ever prosecuted, “we can understand why some survivors have been looking to this sentence as justice-by-proxy,” the organization said, adding that “today’s sentence is a reminder that no matter how powerful a person is nor how high they have climbed, they are still subject to the rule of law.”
The father of one of the victims, known as “R” and who died of a heroin overdose in 2014, said he wanted to “hug” the man whose testimony put Pell behind bars. He said he felt “angry inside” and questioned why his son’s life was wasted “for some guy’s two minutes of pleasure?”
The man’s lawyer, Lisa Flynn, said in a statement that Pell’s sentence “is the start of part of a long journey for many victims of abuse around the country. For many, the battle against the Catholic Church has just begun.”
However, others, including known Pell foes, remain unconvinced of his guilt. Some have argued that Pell’s conviction is not a matter of guilt or innocence, but is a means of satisfying victims’ thirst for justice in the wider scandals in Australia.
Frank Brennan, a prominent Jesuit priest known to be at odds with Pell on political and theological disputes, after the sentence was announced said that “Should the appeal fail, I hope and pray Pell, heading for prison, is not the unwitting victim of a nation in search of a scapegoat.”
During the sentencing hearing, Kidd himself stressed that Pell is “not to be made a scapegoat of the failings of the Catholic Church,” and admitted that there has been “a witch-hunt or lynch mob mentality” surrounding Pell and his trial. He condemned this, saying “it has nothing to do with justice.”
George Yao, a prominent former politician under the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in Singapore and a member of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy, defended Pell, voicing hope that he would be acquitted.
A close acquaintance of Pell, Yao in a Facebook post said he “developed a deep respect” for Pell’s “sense of mission” during their time working together. This is why Pell’s conviction and imprisonment “filled me and many others with pain,” he said.
Yao, who is Catholic, served in the Singapore government for 23 years before retiring from politics in 2011. He has since become active in the private sector, serving as the chairman of Kerry Logistics Network and, in 2014, was named a member of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy.
In his Facebook post, Yao responded to critics who said they were disappointed in his defense of Pell, saying his belief in Pell’s innocence is “a matter of conscience,” and that he finds the evidence hard to believe.
Though he sympathizes with victims and said he has found the abuse scandals difficult on a personal level, he said he believes Pell “has good grounds for appeal and hope that his conviction would be overturned,” and added that he is praying for Pell’s acquittal after the June appeal.
Pell, he said, “has consistently and resolutely maintained his innocence. If his conviction stands after all arguments have been made and all appeal avenues have been exhausted, I will have to respect the judgement of the Australian judicial system.”