ROME—About an hour after Cardinal George Pell was discharged from Melbourne’s Barwon Prison on Tuesday, a courier left a case of wine at the monastery where he would spend his first night as a free man. The wine was not the kind used in Catholic mass. It was the kind for toasting victories: Pells’ clerical sex abuse conviction had just been overturned by Australia’s highest court.
It’s not clear who ordered the wine, but for sure not everyone is celebrating the decision.
The reversal of the conviction—which had been upheld by an appellate court in Melbourne last year—has deeply divided the Catholic Church around the world. Many Vatican insiders who felt Pell was a scapegoat convicted for the sins of many others will now feel vindicated, while survivors of clerical sexual abuse feel as if they have been victimized all over again.
Pope Francis earlier said he would refrain from commenting until all the Australian court processes played out. But at his televised mass Tuesday morning, he seemed to send a subtle message of support for Pell. “I want to pray today for all those who suffer unjust sentences,” Francis said. “In these days of Lent, we’ve been witnessing the persecution that Jesus underwent and how he was judged ferociously, even though he was innocent. Let us pray together today for all those persons who suffer due to an unjust sentence because of someone who had it in for them.”
The Vatican issued a statement on Tuesday in Rome in which they “expressed confidence in the Australian judicial authority” and “welcome the High Court’s unanimous decision concerning Cardinal George Pell, acquitting him of the accusations of abuse of minors and overturning his sentence.” The statement goes on to say that Pell has “always maintained his innocence, and has waited for the truth to be ascertained” but that “the Holy See reaffirms its commitment to preventing and pursuing all cases of abuse against minors.”
Pell, formerly the Vatican’s finance czar, had served more than a year of his six year prison sentence after he was convicted two years ago of assaulting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s cathedral in the '90s. One of the victims testified that Pell had exposed himself and touched the boy inappropriately. The other alleged victim had taken his own life years ago, but his family spoke on his behalf, recounting the spiral of substance abuse and personal strife experienced by so many victims of clerical sex abuse.
The seven-judge panel presiding over an empty courtroom, which was cleared due to the coronavirus pandemic, read its ruling on line: “The jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt with respect to each of the offenses for which he was convicted.”
The cardinal issued a statement of his own, in which he said he had suffered a “serious injustice” that the high court now “remedied.” He added that he held “no ill will to my accuser,” who had testified in his trial. “I do not want my acquittal to add to the hurt and bitterness so many feel,” he said. “There is certainly hurt and bitterness enough.”
Lisa Flynn, who represents the father of Pell’s alleged victim who took his life by suicide, said her client has lost faith in Australian justice because of the ruling. “Our client is currently in shock,” Flynn said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “He is furious the man he believes is responsible for sexually abusing his son was convicted by a unanimous jury only to have that decision overturned today, allowing George Pell to walk free from jail.”
Flynn added that her client is “heartbroken” for the surviving victim who came forward to testify. “Our client says he is heartbroken for the surviving victim who stuck his neck out by coming forward to tell his story but was ultimately let down by a legal process that forced him to re-live his pain and trauma for no benefit,” she said. “Our client says this man, who the jury believed, is an upstanding citizen who had nothing to gain from speaking out other than to protect other children from the pain and suffering he has to live with on a daily basis.”
“This is not the message we need to be sending to vulnerable survivors of sexual abuse,” said Flynn. “It suggests that even if survivors of child sexual abuse report their abuse, convince police to lay charges, convince the prosecution to pursue those charges, convince a jury to convict the accused, convince a Court of Appeal to uphold the jury’s decision, they can still be denied justice by the country’s highest court.”
Pell has expressed a desire to stay in his native Australia, but he might also be welcomed back in Rome, where he could live more anonymously inside the walls of Vatican City. He has become a divisive figure in Australia and might face a constant barrage of criticism and protest should he stay. He is also facing civil suits from the victims, which he does not have to stay in Australia to fight. Because he was never stripped of any clerical status, he will be eligible to vote in a conclave to elect the next pope should it happen before he turns 80 in 2021.
Pell’s new status is devastating for victims who may now choose to stay silent. “Do not let this decision stop you from speaking your truth,” Flynn wrote in her statement. “Instead, use today’s decision to free George Pell to ignite your fire and take on your abuser.”
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