The shocking defense of convicted child abuser cardinal George Pell

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After the hearing, with Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter, having withdrawn his application for bail, the chief judge said: “Take him away, please.”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.


  1. ridana says

    “trifling sexual assault” are not three words that should ever appear together as other than an example of gibberish.

  2. Sam N says

    The lawyer completely neglects the fact that proven sexual assault probably means 10 or 100x as many unproven cases. That cardinal should never see the light of day again.

  3. bargearse says

    I guess you could argue that the lawyer was simply doing his job trying to get his client the most lenient sentence possible with that ridiculous submission. What’s harder to fathom is why 10 people including former Prime Minister John Howard felt compelled to provide character testimony on Pell’s behalf in order to influence sentencing. Given what Pell did I genuinely don’t understand why they did that.

  4. says

    Maybe the lawyer secretly hates Pell and deliberately fumbled his argument. Otherwise, we have to imagine that was the best he could do.

    The catholic church has been pretty good at running out the clock on the accusations. Delay, shift, obfuscate, don’t keep evidence. That shows that they know the priests are guilty. The whole church leadership is in on it.

  5. lanir says

    The church continues it’s traditions of unrealistic rules around sex because guilty people are easier to control. It’s a power move. They avoid revealing the sexual predators in their midst because it lessens their power. They don’t relax the permanent abstinance from sex rules for the clergy because it gives them moral authority in this area which further enhances thier power. They use every option available to silence or discredit victims, including the despicable practice of blaming them for the abuses they’ve suffered because their stories weaken this power the church holds over its believers.

    For all it’s professed concern with morals and how people have sex, the church in practice is not committed to these ideas. The actions of the church make clear that it cares far, far more about power than it does about either of these concepts. This means that until we see the church rushing forward to give evidence to local prosecutors we’ll always know there’s more awful behavior to uncover. Until the church follows it’s own teachings and confesses it’s sins it will continue using the methods it’s devil is said to prefer: lies, deceit, and the willful debasement of anyone who goes along with its schemes.

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