Who is Cardinal George Pell?

Pell is essentially the treasurer of the Vatican and the Holy See in Rome, a high-ranking position that makes him among the world’s most powerful Catholics. He has also been a longtime confidant to Pope Francis. Before his appointment to the Vatican in 2014, Pell held senior positions within the Catholic church in Australia, including as the archbishop of Sydney and the archbishop of Melbourne. He is known for his staunch conservativism on issues including marriage equality and abortion.

He is Australia’s most senior Catholic. He was made a companion in the Order of Australia in the Queen’s birthday honours in 2005 for his service to the church. Pell is now also the highest-ranking Catholic official in the world to have been convicted of child sexual abuse.

How has he responded to child sexual abuse in the church?

Pell has attracted criticism since the 1990s for the way he responded to allegations of child sexual abuse while he was working in Australian Catholic institutions. As archbishop of Melbourne he formulated the much-criticised Melbourne Response, which offered support and counselling to victims of sexual abuse but capped compensation payments. In 2014 he said the church was no more responsible for child abuse carried out by church figures than a trucking company would be if they employed a driver who molested women. At Australia’s child sex abuse royal commission, he described offending by his one-time friend, the priest Gerald Ridsdale, as a “sad story” that “wasn’t of much interest to me”. Ridsdale has been found guilty of offending against more than 60 children.

What happened in his own case?

In June 2017 Pell was charged with child sexual assault offences by Australian police.

George Pell leaves at Melbourne magistrates court in May last year
George Pell leaves at Melbourne magistrates court in May last year. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Pell took leave from the Vatican and stood aside from his position there to return to Australia and face a committal hearing, which began in March 2018. In a committal hearing, a magistrate decides if there is enough evidence to go to trial. The magistrate threw out the most serious charges owing to credibility issues of witnesses. Other charges were withdrawn by prosecutors.

Pell was left facing several charges, which were split into two trials. The first group related to offending in 1996 at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne when he was archbishop. The second group related to alleged offending in a swimming pool while he was a priest in the regional Victorian town of Ballarat in the 1970s.

The cathedral trial was held in August and resulted in a hung jury. A mistrial was declared and the trial was held a second time, beginning in November. On 11 December the jury returned a verdict of guilty on five charges; one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 and four counts of indecent assault of a child under the age of 16. The convictions relate to Pell’s offending against two 13-year-old choirboys.

Why are the details only coming out now?

A suppression order was in place so that jurors in the trial of the second group of alleged offences would not be prejudiced by reporting of the first trial. Such suppression orders are standard when an accused person is facing multiple trials. But the swimming pool charges were dropped by prosecutors on Tuesday after evidence they were relying on to build their case was deemed inadmissible by the judge, Peter Kidd. With Pell no longer facing a further trial, the suppression order was lifted and the cathedral trial and mistrial can now be reported in full.

What happens next?

Pell’s defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, has indicated that his client will appeal. Usually, a single judge considers the appeal application and decides whether the accused has legal grounds for appealing. If there are grounds for appeal, the matter proceeds to a hearing.

If the judge refuses the application, a convicted person can elect to have the refusal reconsidered by other judges of the court of appeal. If the matter goes to a hearing and the conviction is set aside, the court may order a new trial, or acquit the person. The process can take eight to 10 months, sometimes longer.

In the meantime, Pell is due to be sentenced next week, but may be taken into custody at a plea hearing on Wednesday. He was granted bail in December to undergo knee surgery, which he has since had.

Now that the trial is over, the royal commission may release its findings relating to Pell. When the five-year inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse delivered its final report in 2017, the section relating to Pell was redacted so as not to prejudice court proceedings.

How has the pope responded?

The Vatican will have been made aware of the verdict when it was delivered in December. A Vatican spokesman has consistently said the pope does not intend to speak until the judicial process is complete, including a possible appeal.

Pope Francis greets Pell after mass at the Vatican in 2016
Pope Francis greets Pell after mass at the Vatican in 2016. The pontiff will be under pressure to respond to Pell’s verdict quickly. Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Two days after the verdict, Pope Francis removed Pell from his inner circle in a restructure of his Council of Cardinals. Pell was not removed from his position as financial controller of the Vatican, a position he technically still holds. On Pell’s removal from the council, Francis thanked him for his work reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.

There will be pressure on the Vatican to respond to Pell’s verdict quickly, given growing global anger about the way the church has responded to and concealed child sexual abuse. Last week’s landmark child sexual abuse summit at the Vatican drew criticism after Francis failed to promise a “zero tolerance” approach to paedophiles and those who cover up their crimes.


Melissa Davey

The GuardianTramp