For centuries, clergymen have been regarded as invincible from the law, protected by their names, and highly-regarded position in society. Earlier this month, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis himself, finally admitted that men of the cloth commit sexual crimes too. Though it was regarded as a well-known fact, his admission came as a big shock to the world. But it seems the statement was timely. He knew this year would be rocked with controversy, as one of the pope’s former aides and a trusted advisor, Cardinal George Pell, has been charged guilty of sex crimes. According to BBC, “The verdict was handed down in December, but it could not be reported until now for legal reasons.”
Pell began his training for priesthood in 1960 in Australia. By 1996, he had risen to become archbishop of Melbourne. He was actually known as one of the first in the Church who actively tackled sexual abuse in the institution. As archbishop, he established the Melbourne Response, a program which directly responded to claims of child sexual abuse by “offering modest pay-outs to victims,” BBC noted. While supporters praised it as a “pro-active measure,” critics saw it as something that quells victims and deters them from filing official cases in the courts.
In 2003, Pope John Paul II nominated Pell to the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, which meant he was among the esteemed few able vote in papal elections. In 2014, he effectively became the Vatican treasurer. Pope Francis created the position and put him there, after scandals at the Vatican Bank began to emerge.
Despite Pell’s successful career, child abuse allegations made by members of the Catholic clergy from his hometown followed him. He was previously accused of covering up the crimes of Gerald Ridsdale, a notorious pedophile priest. Though he denied any wrongdoing, he conceded that his efforts to investigate claims of abuse were not enough. And when he was embroiled in allegations that he himself committed abuse in the 1970s, he continued to maintain innocence, and sadly, prosecutors have withdrawn charges against him.
But finally, he was convicted. BBC reports that “A second jury unanimously convicted him of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.”
Following his conviction, Cardinal Pell was remanded in custody. He applied for bail but it was rejected—thankfully. During the sentencing hearing, would you believe that his lawyer, Richard Richter, actually tried to argue that there were “no aggravating circumstances” to one of his offences because it was “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”? Not to mention, he also argued that the incident wherein Pell grabbed one of the boys by the genitals for a few seconds was “fleeting” and not worthy of a jail sentence.
The chief judge, Peter Kidd, thankfully disagreed. “That wasn’t just a trifling sexual assault,” he said. “Nothing is to be gained here by comparing different forms of sexual abuse of children. Of course I need to make a judgement of the overall gravity of this. But there is a limit to these kinds of comparisons.” He also pointed out what we all know to be true: “[Pell] did have in his mind some sense of impunity. How else did he think he would get away with this?”
It’s obvious from the arguments that the cleric still somehow thinks he could get away with the crime he committed. According to The Guardian, at one point, Richter insisted that Pell “did not have a pattern of offending and had not planned the attack, and so would have been ‘seized by some irresistible impulse.’” (Again, props to judge Kidd who responded: “There are no medical records suggesting he is mad. The only inference I can make is that he thought he could get away with it. People don’t go ahead and do what he did without thinking about it. People make choices.”)
In another instance, the publication reported that, “Abuse survivors and advocates present in the court gasped as Richter made his arguments for a lower-end sentence. He said at one point that if Pell’s victims were ‘truly distressed’ after being abused, they would have returned to their homes exhibiting that distress.” A truly bullsh*t argument if I ever heard one.
In a statement, one of his victims, who remains anonymous, said, “Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle.” Adding that, “It has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life.” It’s important to note that Pell’s other victim reportedly died of a drug overdose after a troubled life. The surviving victim said further in his statement that “At some point we realize that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.”
The ongoing legal battle Cardinal Pell pursues is a shameful affront to his victims, but his conviction, albeit overdue, comes as a form of justice at least. We just hope this type of unrelenting and impartial execution of the law by authorities will continue, and members of the clergy all over the world will finally realize they are not exempt from jurisprudence. It’s time for the church to finally face the music.
Art by Marian Hukom
For the latest in culture, fashion, beauty, and celebrities, subscribe to our weekly newsletter here