Australian cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful men in the Vatican, was found guilty of child sexual abuse by a court in Melbourne. It was a unanimous decision. During his sentencing hearing, his lawyer made an astounding mitigating argument of his client’s actions.
Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sexual abuse, has been taken in custody following a sentencing hearing in which his lawyer described one of Pell’s offences as a “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”.
After the hearing, with Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter, having withdrawn his application for bail, the chief judge said: “Take him away, please.” Pell was taken to a maximum security facility where he will be kept in protective custody and remain alone for up to 23 hours a day.
He will be sentenced on 13 March after his conviction for sexually assaulting two 13-year-old boys.
The chief judge presiding over the sentencing hearing was not buying the defense lawyer’s ‘plain vanilla ‘ assault defense..
The chief judge, Peter Kidd, responded: “It must be clear to you by now I’m struggling with that submission. Looking at your points here – so what?”
He said he saw Pell’s behaviour as “callous, brazen offending” and “shocking conduct”.
“He did have in his mind some sense of impunity. How else did he think he would get away with this? There was an element of force here … this is not anywhere near the lower end of offending.”
Richter also tried to suggest that an incident in which Pell grabbed one of the boys by the genitals in an attack that lasted seconds was “fleeting” and not worthy of a jail sentence. Kidd 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.”
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.
Richter said he was in a difficult position because he could only propose a sentence based on the jury’s finding of guilt, not on the basis that Pell maintained his innocence. He said Pell did not have a pattern of offending and had not planned the attack, and so would have been “seized by some irresistible impulse”.
Kidd responded: “You put to the jury only a madman would commit these offences. The jury rejected that. 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.”
The judge is absolutely right. These abuses were enabled because the Catholic priests felt that they had immunity, that their positions as religious leaders would cow their victims into not complaining, and even if they did, the congregation would choose not to believe the accusers, and that the church would protect them if things got a little too hot.
The clergy scandal has extended to India where Oswald Gracias, the senior most Catholic cardinal and tipped as a possible future pope, is now under fire for not taking action against priests whose abuse was brought to his attention. There are also accusations against other bishops for not taking action against priests who pressured nuns to satisfy their sexual demands.
This is obviously not a local issue involving scattered ‘bad apples’ in the church but indicate a systemic problem in the Catholic church worldwide. The church and pope Francis cannot be trusted to deal with this. Mary Hunt says that the just concluded summit in Rome on sexual abuse in the church was a failure because “Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, and theology were excluded” and that the real action was taking place outside the meeting hall where survivors and critics spoke.
No one expected a miracle or a magic solution to the deeply entrenched problem of sexual abuse of minors at this meeting. Given that the abuse of women, including nuns, has not been addressed at all, and that the cases and lists of perpetrators continue to roll out (along with the conviction of George Pell, Pope Francis’ handpicked leader of the Vatican’s finances), there’s little reason to expect anything at all from Rome.
A global investigation and crackdown by law enforcement is called for. The church must be forced to release all the information they have about these criminal activities and not allowed to hide behind the shield of religion.