ROME – News of criminal charges against Cardinal George Pell, the third-ranking official in the Vatican, for historical sexual offenses by police in the Australia state of Victoria has produced a wave of reactions across the globe, from the archdiocese of Melbourne to Rome.
Statements on the issue have varied from skepticism and condemnation, to support and calls for fairness. Crux has collected some of the most salient reactions to the criminal indictment of Pell, the highest-ranking Vatican official ever to be charged in the Church’s long-running sexual abuse scandals.
Two accusers said to be “over the moon”
Two men who accused Pell of sexually abusing them decades ago are “over the moon” concerning the decision to lay charges against the cardinal, their lawyer Ingrid Irwin told the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun.
Despite the enthusiasm following two years of legal proceedings, Irwin is skeptical about the final outcome.
“Naturally, anybody with any knowledge of how the criminal process works, particularly of historical sexual abuse cases, knows there’s many in-built buffers to the accused to make it virtually impossible to get success,” she said.
“I can’t see why they won’t play out again, particularly when you get a client as high profile as George Pell,” she said.
The lawyer added that the two men were not notified about the charges being brought. Irwin added that it’s been difficult for her clients to “stick their neck out” these past years, and expressed skepticism that the trial would end in their favor.
“Pell’s legal team are going to throw everything they can at this,” Irwin told the Herald Sun. “It’s important for [the accusers] to be realistic, and to understand this case may not net the result they are hoping for.”
Abuse survivors in Australia call for action
Abuse survivors spoke to the Herald Sun expressing relief after a long period of uncertainty surrounding the accusations, though some were doubtful regarding Pell’s commitment to answering to the charges brought against him.
Some, such as abuse survivor Andrew Collins, asked that Pell “be stood down from his role” as prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, stressing that this is “a defining moment for the church.”
A Vatican statement said that Pope Francis has granted the cardinal a leave of absence in order to defend himself and return to Australia, and Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, added that for the time being Pell will not be taking part in public liturgical events.
Collins, 43, said that if Pell were to return to his native country, it would be an unprecedented event demonstrating “that the child sexual abuse scandal has gone right to the top of the church.” In the unlikely event that Pell decides not to return, Collins believes it would “really put pressure on the pope to stand him down immediately.”
Abuse victims Phil Nagle and Chrissie Foster, mother of two girls who were raped by a priest in the 1980s, were doubtful about Pell’s intention of returning to Australia to face trial.
“We fear he will never come home,” Nagle said. “He is one of the most powerful Catholics in the world, but if this guy committed a crime, he needs to be held accountable for it, just like anyone else.”
According to abuse survivor Peter Blenkiron, the main objective is that the court process ensue according to the law and that it be fair.
“A verdict must be concluded on the evidence and fact, we cannot prematurely extrapolate guilty or not guilty,” Blenkiron said.
“This is evidence the culture of sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church is coming to a stop,” he said. “It has to come to a stop, but our focus can’t just be on one person, it’s got to be on changing all institutions.”
Marie Collins says Pell guilty of “appalling mishandling” of abuse cases
Abuse survivor Mary Collins, who made headlines this year after resigning from Pope Francis’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors due to frustrations with the Roman Curia, spoke about the charges being made against Pell in a blog entry on June 29.
Though saying “the law will take its course,” Collins nonetheless said that she has already found Pell “guilty of the appalling mishandling of cases of abuse when still in place in Australia, and causing untold pain to the victims in those cases.”
She went on to condemn the Vatican not only for allowing Pell to “hide out” and “avoid facing those in his home country who needed answers,” but also for appointing him to a senior post, which she described as a “slap in the face to all those he had let down so badly.
“Once an accusation of sexual abuse was made against him, he should have been stepped down until that accusation had been investigated,” Collins added.
Old friends come to Pell’s defense
Others have spoken up in defense of Pell’s character. Archbishop Denis Hart of Melburne, Australia, who has been Pell’s friend and brother priest for more than 50 years, praised the cardinal’s “many good works” and his previous commitment to addressing “the evil of sexual abuse in the Church.”
Hart asked that Pell be given “the presumption of innocence” and a “fair trial.”
In a statement, Pell’s successor as Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, asked that the cardinal be considered innocent until proven guilty and went on to praise Pell as an “honest” and “thoroughly decent man.”
Former Prime Minister of Australia and leading Catholic figure, Tony Abbott, took a similar position, stating in an interview with Fairfax Media that “the George Pell I have known is a very fine man indeed.”
The pair have been friends for many years, though Abbott said that “obviously, the legal process must now take its course.”
The Victoria Director of public prosecutions, John R. Champion, who will be involved in the legal proceeding against Pell, took no position, but emphasized his intention to guarantee a fair and just trial to all parties.
Champion said in a June 29 statement that “media coverage in respect to these charges must be fair, so that the interests of justice are preserved.”