Abuse convictions of Australia cardinal prove polarising

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The most senior Catholic to be convicted of child abuse will be sentenced to prison in Australia today in a landmark case that has polarised observers. Some described the prosecution as proof the church is no longer above the law, while others suspect Cardinal George Pell has been made a scapegoat.

Pope Francis’ former Finance Minister, who had been described as the third-highest ranking Catholic in the Vatican, has spent two weeks in a Melbourne remand jail cell since a sentencing hearing in the Victoria state County Court on February 27 in which his lawyers conceded the 77-year-old must spend time behind bars.

Pell had been convicted in December of abusing a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy’s 13-year-old friend in the late 1990s, months after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne and initiated a compensation scheme for victims of abuse.

A court order had prohibited media from reporting on the verdict until two weeks ago, when prosecutors abandoned a second trial on charges that Pell had abused two boys in a public swimming pool in the 1970s.

Chief Judge Peter Kidd will sentence Pell on five convictions, each carrying a potential 10-year maximum sentence. Most of the sentences for each conviction are likely to be served concurrently.

Pell’s sentence will also reflect court standards of two decades ago, when his crimes were committed. In those days, judges placed less weight on the damage done to children by abuse.

In an unusual move for an Australian court that acknowledges intense international interest in the case, the judge will allow his sentencing remarks to be broadcast on live television.

After centuries of impunity, cardinals from Australia to Chile and points in between are facing justice in both the Vatican and government courts for their own misdeeds or for having shielded abusers under their watch.

File photo of Cardinal George Pell arriving at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia. – AP

Last week, France’s senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted of failing to report a known paedophile priest to police. He was given a six-month suspended sentence.

Francis last month defrocked the onetime leader of the American church after an internal investigation determined Cardinal Theodore McCarrick molested children and adults. It was the first time a cardinal had been defrocked over the child abuse scandal.

Pell has denied any wrongdoing and will appeal his convictions at the Victoria Court of Appeal on June 5. His lawyers cancelled an application to keep him free on bail before then.

The appeal grounds include that the “verdicts are unreasonable and cannot be supported” by the evidence of more than 20 witnesses who testified, including clerics, choristers and altar servers.

“It was not open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt on the word of the complainant alone,” the filings said.

That view has been expressed in some sections of the media.

“Pell was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the uncorroborated evidence of one witness, without forensic evidence, a pattern of behaviour or a confession,” veteran crime reporter John Silvester wrote in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.

“Pell has become a lightning rod on the worldwide storm of anger at a systemic cover-up of priestly abuses. But that doesn’t make him a child molester,” Silvester added.

An Australian academic who wrote an opinion piece describing Pell’s “accusers” as “wicked” last week apologised for the article, which was published in a Catholic monthly newspaper that was later pulled by the church.

In his written apology issued by the Hobart Archdiocese, Daintree said, “It was never my intention to cast doubt on survivors.”

Sky News Live, an Australian cable and satellite television station, protected advertisers’ reputations by removing all ads from prominent conservative commentator Andrew Bolt’s nightly programme after he flagged he would be venting his own misgivings about the verdict.

“Pell could well be an innocent man who is being made to pay for the sins of his church and made to pay after an astonishing campaign of media vilification,” Bolt said.

The judge, prosecutor and defence lawyer repeatedly told both Pell’s juries that they must not make Pell a scapegoat for the church. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury and the second jury delivered unanimous guilty verdicts.

Judge Kidd told the sentencing hearing last month, “The Catholic Church is not on trial … I’m imposing sentence on Cardinal Pell for what he did.”