MELBOURNE, Australia — The most senior Catholic to be convicted of child sex abuse will be sentenced to prison in Australia on Wednesday in a landmark case that has polarized observers. Some described the prosecution as proof the church is no longer above the law, while others suspect Cardinal George Pell has been made a scapegoat for the church’s sins.
Pope Francis’s former finance minister, who had been described as the third-highest ranking Catholic in the Vatican, has spent two weeks in a Melbourne remand jail cell since a sentencing hearing in the Victoria state County Court on Feb. 27 in which his lawyers conceded the 77-year-old must spend time behind bars.
Pell had been convicted in December of orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy’s 13-year-old friend in the late 1990s, months after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne and initiated a compensation scheme for victims of clergy sexual abuse. A court order had prohibited media from reporting on the verdict until two weeks ago, when prosecutors abandoned a second trial on charges that Pell had groped two boys in a public swimming pool in the 1970s.
Chief Judge Peter Kidd will sentence Pell on five convictions, each carrying a potential 10-year maximum sentence. Most of the sentences for each conviction are likely to be served concurrently.
Pell’s sentence will also reflect court standards of two decades ago, when his crimes were committed. In those days, judges placed less weight on the damage done to children by sexual abuse.
In an unusual move for an Australian court that acknowledges intense international interest in the case, the judge will allow his sentencing remarks to be broadcast on live television.
After centuries of impunity, cardinals from Australia to Chile and points in between are facing justice in both the Vatican and government courts for their own sexual misdeeds or for having shielded abusers under their watch.
Last week, France’s senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted of failing to report a known pedophile priest to police. He was given a six-month suspended sentence.
Francis last month defrocked the onetime leader of the American church after an internal investigation determined Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually molested children and adult men. It was the first time a cardinal had been defrocked over the child abuse scandal.
Pell has denied any wrongdoing and will appeal his convictions at the Victoria Court of Appeal on June 5. His lawyers canceled an application to keep him free on bail before then.
The appeal grounds include that the “verdicts are unreasonable and cannot be supported” by the evidence of more than 20 witnesses who testified, including clerics, choristers and altar servers.
“It was not open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt on the word of the complainant alone,” the filings said.
That view has been expressed in some sections of the media.
“Pell was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the uncorroborated evidence of one witness, without forensic evidence, a pattern of behavior or a confession,” veteran crime reporter John Silvester wrote in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.
“Pell has become a lightning rod on the worldwide storm of anger at a systemic cover-up of priestly abuses. But that doesn’t make him a child molester,” Silvester added.
An Australian academic who wrote an opinion piece describing Pell’s “accusers” as “wicked” last week apologized for the article, which was published in a Catholic monthly newspaper that was later pulled by the church.
“Pell is a tough man and he will, by the grace of God, survive the wickedness of his accusers and the silence of many who should defend him but won’t,” Tasmania University think-tank director David Daintree wrote in the Tasmania-based Catholic Standard newspaper.
In his written apology issued by the Hobart Archdiocese, Daintree said, “It was never my intention to cast doubt on survivors.”
Sky News Live, an Australian cable and satellite television station, protected advertisers’ reputations by removing all ads from prominent conservative commentator Andrew Bolt’s nightly program after he flagged he would be venting his own misgivings about the verdict.
“Pell could well be an innocent man who is being made to pay for the sins of his church and made to pay after an astonishing campaign of media vilification,” Bolt said.
The judge, prosecutor and defense lawyer repeatedly told both Pell’s juries that they must not make Pell a scapegoat for the church. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury and the second jury delivered unanimous guilty verdicts.
Judge Kidd told the sentencing hearing last month, “The Catholic Church is not on trial … I’m imposing sentence on Cardinal Pell for what he did.”
Pell is guilty as charged in the eyes of many who have been quick to distance themselves from the cardinal since the convictions were made public. Melbourne’s Richmond Football Club quickly dropped Pell as the Australian Rules Football team’s honorary ambassador. Pell was contracted to the club as a budding professional footballer in 1959 before he joined the priesthood.
St. Patrick’s College, the prestigious Catholic school where Pell was educated in his hometown of Ballarat, announced that a building named after him would be renamed and Pell would be removed from the school honor board.
“The jury’s verdict demonstrates that Cardinal Pell’s behaviors have not met the standards we expect of those we honor as role models for the young men we educate,” headmaster John Crowley said.
But the Australian Catholic University said its Pell Center at its Ballarat campus would not be renamed until the appeal process was completed, angering academic staff.
The university’s president, Greg Craven, and former Prime Minister John Howard are among 10 prominent Australians whose character references were submitted to Judge Kidd to take into consideration when deciding an appropriate sentence.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher told a congregation on the first Sunday after the convictions were made public that they should withhold judgment on Pell until the appeal.
“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.
Fisher, a former lawyer, holds the church post in Australia’s largest city that Pell held before he was elevated to the Vatican.
In the Vatican, Pell is facing a church investigation that could lead to his removal from the priesthood.
When Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson last year became the most senior Catholic cleric ever found guilty of covering up child sex abuse, he initially refused to resign pending an appeal.
But Wilson quit two months later after then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on Pope Francis to fire him. Wilson’s conviction was eventually quashed on appeal in December, but he has not been reinstated to his former role.
Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison is willing to hold off acting on Pell until his appeal is settled. A petition with more than 130,000 signatures has called for Pell to be stripped of an Australian honor awarded in 2005 for his service to the church, education and social justice.
“I was appalled and shocked,” Morrison said of the convictions. “I think any Australian would be to read of those events, but it shows that no one is above the law in this country.”