Editor’s Note: This piece is being updated throughout the day.
ROME – On Tuesday the Vatican said it welcomed the Australian High Court’s decision to acquit Cardinal George Pell on all charges of the sexual abuse, while also stressing their own commitment to pursuing justice for minors who have been abused.
In an April 7 statement just hours after the court’s verdict, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said, “The Holy See, which has always expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority, welcomes the High Court’s unanimous decision concerning Cardinal George Pell, acquitting him of the accusations of abuse of minors and overturning his sentence.”
“Entrusting his case to the court’s justice, Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence, and has waited for the truth to be ascertained,” Bruni said, insisting that while celebrating the verdict the Holy See also “reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors.
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Speaking to Crux about Pell’s canonical process, Bruni did not confirm whether it will proceed or be dropped, but said “the Australian High Court’s decision was communicated today: the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, together with the other competent offices of the Holy See, will now of course draw its conclusions on the basis of the norms of canon law.”
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Though he did not refer to the Pell case specifically, during his morning Mass Pope Francis seemed to indicate sympathy, saying that “In these days of Lent, we’ve seen the persecution Jesus suffered and how the doctors of the law were intransigent against him. He was judged under intransigence, with intransigence, being innocent,” the pope said. “I’d like to pray today for all persons who suffer an unjust sentence because of intransigence.”
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In comments to Crux, Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, who served alongside Pell as part of the pope’s advisory council until Pell returned to Australia to face charges in 2018, said he was convinced of Pell’s innocence “from the beginning. I know what the accusations were, and they were absurd and I am satisfied that justice has been done.” Gracias said he sent Pell messages of encouragement while the latter was imprisoned in Australia.
“I expect there will be some criticism about it,” Gracias said, but “I know Cardinal Pell personally (and) I am absolutely certain that justice has been done.”
Calling the ruling a “a Sign of Easter,” Gracias said that within pope’s advisory council, they did not speak about the Pell case out of respect and privacy, however, but he had long been convinced of Pell’s innocence and did not change that position despite Pell’s initial guilty verdict and the rejection of his first appeal.
Graicas, who was one of four member organizing team of Pope Francis’s global summit on the protection of minors in February 2019, stressed that a “zero tolerance” approach to abuse “does not mean, that injustice can be done, an innocent person can be condemned. Whenever there is a doubt, we cannot be blind to the doubt, I agree that we must come to a moral certainty (as to) whether the person is guilty or not guilty.”
He said he does not believe that the acquittal will stop other victims from coming forward, because in Pell’s case, it “was a question of Justice, was the evidence there or not. Every accusation must be investigated and examined by an impartial body of both Civil and Ecclesial tribunals and come to a moral certainty of the Truth.”
Yet while welcomed by Gracias and many others who doubted the plausibility of the accusations, the ruling was met with grief and anger among the survivor community.
In a statement, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said they were “dismayed and heartbroken,” arguing that “Once again, the powerful have won and the prize is the continuation of the Catholic Church’s tradition of abuse obfuscation and minimization.”
“Our hearts ache for the surviving accuser in this case, and we hope that this disappointing ruling does not deter other victims from coming forward to report their abuse,” they said, adding that this “exacerbates the mistrust survivors feel.”
“It also helps propagate myths about sexual violence, stigmatizes victims for choosing to disclose later in life, and negatively affects how people react when allegations are made against prominent community members,” the organization said.
They also pushed the Vatican to move forward with a canonical investigation into Pell, insisting that “it would self-serving and hypocritical” if they do not.
Maureen Hatcher, founder of the Australian support group Loud Fence, said the verdict is especially difficult for survivors as it comes during the coronavirus lockdown.
“I just felt incredibly sad for survivors and any survivors who have spoken out. Because to me it was a bit like they’ve just been shot,” Hatcher said. “It’s huge news and it’ll impact on so many people and it’s made even harder because of the isolation at the moment.”
SNAP also said the acquittal sends a poor message about Australian justice, arguing that it gives the impression that “the citizen-jury, the representatives of ‘society’, is subordinate if not needed in criminal trials.”
“Citizen-participation in the formation of societal rules and their enforcement is weakened by this action,” they said, voicing their belief that “this ruling will make victims lose their faith in the criminal justice system, and will send the message that survivors should stay hidden and silent rather than come forward and seek justice.”
According to the UK newspaper The Daily Mail, despite walking free, Pell currently faces 10 other potential civil lawsuits claiming that he either molested other boys or helped coverup abuse by fellow priests.
The paper reports that Vivian Waller, who served as the legal counsel for the alleged victim in the Pell case, referred to as “J”, is currently handling eight other civil cases and is expecting more to come in following the High Court’s ruling, having waited for the final verdict before pursuing their own cases.
One claim that was reportedly filed in the Victorian Supreme Court last year involves an alleged victim of notorious pedophile priest Edward ‘Ted’ Dowlan, who accused Pell of failing to protect him and other victims while serving as episcopal vicar for education in the Ballarat diocese, insisting that Pell helped Dowlan to be transferred from parish to parish.
Among the other cases expected to be filed, the Daily Mail reports, is the father of the second choirboy who accused Pell of molesting him, but who died of a drug overdose in 2014. The father apparently blames Pell for his son’s downward spiral and ultimate death.
However, other representatives in the field of child protection have praised the Australian High Court for pursuing justice.
Sister Ariana Gonzalves, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which contains some survivors, told Crux that news of Pell’s acquittal is a “great relief” for Catholics in Australia, “as well as around the world.”
Noting that Pell has consistently maintained his innocence, she said what is noteworthy about the verdict is a statement released by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel saying that based on the facts, there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.”
“Cardinal Pell has always collaborated with the competent Authority of his country and surrendered himself with the earlier verdict of the court,” Gonzelves said, noting that Pell’s response to the ruling, in which he said that he is not angry with his accuser, “is also very much with Christ value of forgiveness.”
She said she fully agrees with a statement made by Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane and head of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, that “the result today does not change the Church’s commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of child sex abuse.”
Other bishops from around the world have also chimed in.
In an April 7 tweet, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia said, “I thank God the Australian High Court has overturned Cardinal Pell’s conviction. Cardinal Pell has been a friend to the Catholic Church in Scotland and to the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, and I have the deepest respect for him.”
Bishop Philip Egan of the Diocese of Portsmouth in the UK also sent a tweet thanking God that “the sentence against Cardinal Pell has now been quashed. Let us pray this Holy Week for healing all round, not least for him. I pray too for all who are wrongly accused, that God’s justice prevails.”
Crux’s Asia Correspondent Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this report.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen