ROME – When an Australian court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of Cardinal George Pell for abusing minors, the ruling drew mixed reactions from Australians: Celebrations from victim advocates, tears from the cardinal’s supporters, and for some, a desire to simply move on.
In comments to Crux, Australian journalist Sharnelle Vella, a court reporter for Australia’s 7News network, said the emotions in the case “go from being sad to being angry and all the feelings in between.”
“This has been a really emotional time for people who are victims of the Church. There are a lot of abuse survivors, especially in Ballarat, the regional area of Victoria. People have been really hurt by what’s happened,” she said.
However, it’s not just the victims who have dealt with the turmoil of ongoing proceedings.
“Even the people who support George Pell have been really hurt by this,” Vella said. “For a long time, we haven’t really seen these kinds of emotions … this case I think has been extremely polarizing for the Australian public.”
Pell’s case has been one of the most high-profile and highly debated cases of clerical abuse the Catholic Church has seen, largely due to Pell’s prominence not only in the Australian Church, but in the Vatican.
The former archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney was tapped by Pope Francis in 2013 to be a member of his advisory council. He was also named head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy and tasked with taking charge of the Vatican’s financial reform, making him the highest-ranking member of the Catholic Church ever to be found guilty of the sexual abuse of a minor.
Pell was convicted in a trial in December after an initial trial ended in a hung jury. He immediately launched an appeal, and in June, Pell’s legal team argued that the charges against him – abusing two choirboys inside the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral after Sunday Mass – were impossible.
On Wednesday the Victoria appeals court announced that they had upheld Pell’s guilty conviction in a 2-1 split vote, meaning that for the moment, Pell is back in jail.
Vella said the decision was seen as “a real win for the victims,” many of whom feared Pell would be acquitted. Tears of joy were shed outside the courtroom and hugs were exchanged as victims and advocacy groups celebrated the fact that in their view, justice was being done.
However, many others who believe the charges against Pell are false were perplexed and confused.
Supporters of Pell “believe an innocent man is sitting behind bars. They think the jury got it wrong, that the judges got it wrong, and they’re equally as upset,” Vella said. “They want him to take it all the way to the High Court and they want him to be freed.”
Justice Mark Weinberg, the only judge who dissented in Wednesday’s ruling, said that while his counterparts believed Pell’s alleged victim to be a credible witness, he was “quite unconvinced” by the argument that the evidence was compelling enough that all other factors ought to be set aside.
In Weinberg’s remarks, which took up more than half of the court’s 325-page ruling, he said the complainant “seemed almost to ‘clutch at straws’” to minimize inconsistencies in the evidence when questioned during the trial.
“Having had regard to the whole of the evidence led at trial, and having deliberated long and hard over this matter, I find myself in the position of having a genuine doubt as to [Pell’s] guilt,” he wrote, adding, “My doubt is a doubt which the jury ought also to have had.”
Among the Catholic hierarchy in Australia, several fellow bishops came to Pell’s defense.
Bishop Peter Elliott, auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, told Australian news program ABC 7.30 that he does not accept the ruling, and hopes “it is appealed to a higher court.”
Elliott, who has known Pell for over 50 years after studying with him at Oxford, said he believes that Pell “is totally incapable of what he’s been accused of, and what he’s been convicted for,” and he urged Australian Catholics to “keep calm, and carry on praying.”
In a recent interview with Neil Mitchell, host for Australian radio 3AW, Archbishop Peter Comensoli, the current archbishop of Melbourne, said he believes Pell’s accuser has suffered some sort of abuse in the Catholic Church, but he also believes Pell is innocent.
Comensoli, who visited Pell in prison in May, told the network he believes “in what (Pell) has said to me, on many occasions, that he’s innocent and I continue to be really quite shocked with all of how things are developed.”
“Having said that, I also want to say that (the victim), the man who’s brought forward his own matter, I also accept as he has indicated himself, of abuse,” Comensoli said, adding that in stories involving those who have been abused, “the details around memory can be a difficult thing to come to.”
Desmond O’Grady, a reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald, noted that despite the court’s decision and despite the many celebrating it, there is a large portion of people who still argue that the charges are impossible to anyone who knows the Catholic Church and how cathedrals are on a Sunday after Mass.
“If you ask me, I don’t claim to have any special knowledge at all, but that’s how I would think of it,” he told Crux, adding that what Pell has been accused of “seems incredible.”
Noting how some observers have said there was a “lynch-mob” mentality surrounding the Pell case and that many have looked to Pell’s conviction as a “justice-by-proxy” for the crimes of other Catholic priests in Australia, O’Grady said he is convinced that “that’s the feeling of a lot of people.”
In comments to ABC 7.30, Australian priest Father Andrew Hayes said that in his view, “for people around the country, they had the Church on trial here…I think there will be some satisfaction for some people that someone in leadership is being severely punished today and for some years.”
Hayes said he was saddened by the verdict, saying it “is another dark day” for Australia, which for years has been marred by the revelation of abuse cases inside the Catholic Church going back decades.
“I don’t know that we can sink any lower in terms of reputation in the community, reputation in the country. I’m really hopeful that today brings some peace, some healing for people,” Hayes said, voicing hope that the appeal ruling will bring resolution for victims, including Pell’s accuser, and their families.
As for himself, Hayes has said he is ready to accept the ruling and move on. “All along I’ve thought that if from today Cardinal Pell is guilty, then I’ll accept that he’s guilty. And if it had been he was free and let go, I’d have accepted that.”
Pell has 28 days to determine whether he’ll appeal to the Australian High Court, and while no decision has yet been announced, many believe Pell, who has maintained his innocence, will exhaust all possible legal avenues as he continues to serve his 6-year prison sentence.
Yet even if Pell does appeal to the High Court, it is no guarantee that they will accept the case. From 2017-2018 the court received some 495 special leave applications, hearing only 56 of the appeals. In other words, even if Pell does appeal, there is just an 11.3 percent chance his case would be heard.
In her comments to Crux, Vella said Australians celebrating Wednesday’s verdict are not satisfied with civil justice, but they also want the Vatican to act.
“People in Australia want (Pell) to be defrocked, that’s what they want. They want to see the pope take action,” she said, noting that emotions surrounding the case have been boiling up ever since Pell was charged in 2017.
“It’s getting to a point now where people are getting angry, they want to see something more from the Vatican,” she said.
In a statement following Wednesday’s ruling, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni referred to an investigation into Pell launched by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in February, saying that as in other cases, the department “is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case.”
In his view, O’Grady said he believes “the Vatican is pushing for Pell’s appeal to the High Court” to make a move. What happens then is anyone’s guess.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.