ROME – Following his conviction for “historical sexual offenses” related to abuse of two altar boys in the 1990s, Cardinal George Pell was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison by an Australian judge, with the possibility of parole once half the sentence has been served.
Pell, who has maintained his innocence throughout the legal process, faced a maximum of ten years behind bars for each of the four charges of indecent acts and one charge of sexual penetration for which he was convicted in December, though the verdict was only announced in late February when a strict suppression order was lifted.
In Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, Judge Peter Kidd, the Chief Justice of the State of Victoria, acknowledged that there has been “a witch-hunt or lynch mob mentality” surrounding Pell and his trial, and he condemned this, saying “it has nothing to do with justice.”
Kidd stressed that Pell is “not to be made a scapegoat of the failings of the Catholic Church,” but said his position of power and authority in an institutional setting made the allegations worse since they constitute a breach of trust.
Describing the alleged abuse as having “a nasty element to it,” Kidd called it “breathtakingly arrogant” and an “act of violence,” adding, “What you did was so egregious that you may not fully appreciate it.”
However, he noted that as there have been no other allegations since those Pell was tried for, he believes Pell has “effectively reformed” and is no longer a danger to the community.
Pell’s name will be permanently placed on the sex offender registry in Australia. He will be able to apply for parole after serving the first three years and eight months of his sentence, with the two weeks he has already spent behind bars counting toward the sentence.
The 77-year-old Pell has been in custody since Feb. 27, when his bail was revoked following a pre-sentencing conference. A hearing on his appeal of the conviction is set for June 5-6.
Pell, formerly the Vatican’s top financial official as head of the Secretariat for the Economy, is the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of sexual abuse of minors. Reflecting intense public interest in the case, Pell’s sentencing hearing on Wednesday morning in Melbourne was aired live by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The first trial on the charges against Pell that began in August ended in a hung jury. The retrial on those charges in December, however, ended in a unanimous conviction.
The second jury found Pell guilty largely based on the testimony of one boy, now a 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.
The surviving accuser’s identity cannot be revealed due to Australia’s laws around sexual abuse victims.
Critics of the verdict have raised questions about the plausibility of the charges. Writing for the Australian immediately after the conviction was announced, Jesuit Father Frank Brennan, a longtime theological foe of Pell, said he found the claims “incredible.”
“The proposition that the offences charged were committed immediately after Mass by a fully robed archbishop in the sacristy with an open door and in full view from the corridor seemed incredible to my mind,” Brennan wrote.
The Supreme Court of the Australian state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, has set June 5 and 6 for the bid for an appeal to be heard by three justices. Australian sources have described that schedule as “fast-tracked,” given that appeal hearings are often put on the calendar a year or more in advance, and dates are rarely set before a sentence is assigned.
Pell’s appeal will not be led by the lawyer who represented him during the criminal trial, Robert Richter, who came under fire for mismanaging the defense and also for making insulting remarks during the pre-sentencing hearing, in which he described the assault for which Pell was convicted as “a plain vanilla sexual penetration case, where the child is not volunteering or not actively participating.”
Richter later apologized for those comments after abuse survivors termed them “insulting” and “outrageous.”
Instead, prominent Sydney lawyer Bret Walker will represent Pell in the appeal. It remains to be seen if Walker will base the appeal on the same grounds that Richter identified during the sentencing hearing, which were unreasonableness, the prohibition of video evidence in the closing address, and composition of the jury.
Professor Jeremy Gans, a criminal appeals and procedure expert at the University of Melbourne, told the Guardian Australia that unreasonableness is likely Pell’s “best shot.”
“It’s not a rare grounds to succeed on,” Gan said. “This is the defense’s best shot and carries a bonus for them in that if they win there can almost certainly be no new trial. Once a court decides a guilty verdict is unreasonable it means they don’t think guilty should be the verdict in the next trial either.”
“Basically on this grounds of appeal, the court gets to decide if the jury got it right,” Gans said.
In the wake of Pell’s conviction, a Vatican spokesman said that the Australian prelate’s term as head of the Secretariat for the Economy had expired and also that the Vatican may launch a process against Pell under Church law.
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will now handle the case following the procedure and within the time established by canonical norm,” said Alessandro Gisotti, the spokeman.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Pell’s successor in that position and a figure widely considered something of a protégé, has urged caution while the appeal plays out.
“As the cardinal’s matter is ongoing in the courts, I cannot comment on the substance; I urge people not to draw any final conclusions until the appeal judges have had their chance to review this matter,” Fisher said March 3.
“Amid the heated emotions of the present, I also pray for public calm and civility,” he said, adding that he sees “serious questions for the appellate court to examine.”
“If we are too quick to judge, we can end up joining the demonizers or the apologists, those baying for blood or those in denial,” Fisher said.