The most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be convicted of child sexual abuse, Cardinal George Pell, has lost his appeal against his conviction, but maintains he is innocent.
In a brief statement issued after the decision the Vatican reiterated that Pell maintained his innocence, and that it was now “Pell’s right to appeal to the high court”.
“At this time, together with the church in Australia, the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members who commit such abuse,” the statement also said. No mention was made of stripping Pell of his cardinal title.
On Wednesday the Victorian court of appeal in Melbourne, Australia, dismissed Pell’s appeal, with two of the three appellant judges describing the complainant who accused Pell as a compelling, truthful witness.
The jury had not been unreasonable in convicting Pell on one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 and four counts of an indecent act against a child under the age of 16, the chief justice, Anne Ferguson, and appeal court president justice, Chris Maxwell, found.
A third judge, Mark Weinberg, disagreed, finding the complainant was inclined to embellish aspects of his testimony and that he could not exclude the possibility that some of what he said was concocted. But in the court of appeal judges are required only to reach a majority decision.
Pell was escorted back to jail, where he will continue to serve a six-year sentence for sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996, while he was archbishop of Melbourne. After Sunday solemn mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Pell orally raped one of the boys in the priest’s sacristy and indecently assaulted both of them. Pell offended again against one of the boys about a month later, when he grabbed the boy’s genitals in the church corridor, once more after Sunday solemn mass.
Throughout his evidence, [the complainant] came across as someone who was telling the truth,” Ferguson said. “He did not seek to embellish his evidence or tailor it in a manner favourable to the prosecution. As might have been expected, there were some things which he could remember and many things which he could not. And his explanations of why that was so had the ring of truth.”
The judges unanimously agreed that Pell’s other two grounds of appeal, which concerned legal issues, failed. He will be eligible for parole in 2022.
Through his lawyer the complainant issued a statement, saying: “Some commentators have suggested that I reported to the police somehow for my own personal gain.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. I have risked my privacy, my health, my wellbeing, my family. I have not instructed any solicitor in relation to a claim for compensation. This is not about money and never had been. Although my faith has taken a battering it is still a part of my life, and part of the lives of my loved ones.”
The second victim died of a heroin overdose at the age of 30 in 2014, and his father shed tears after the appeal dismissal.
In a statement, Pell’s spokeswoman said the cardinal was “obviously disappointed with the decision today”.
“However his legal team will thoroughly examine the judgment in order to determine a special leave application to the high court. Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence. We thank his many supporters.”
Pell was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2005 for his service to the Catholic church and for his work in education and social justice. Following the court decision, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, said he believed Pell would be stripped of those honours.
“That is a process that is done independently, and that course will now follow,” he said.
The archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, called upon the public to respect the court’s decision. He said that his thoughts and prayers were with the man who had brought Pell before the courts.
“I humbly acknowledge it has been a challenging time for him, and I stand ready to offer pastoral care and spiritual help, should he seek it,” Comensoli said. Pell, too, would receive care. “In Christian charity, I will ensure that Cardinal Pell is provided pastoral and spiritual support while he serves the remainder of his sentence, according to the teaching and example of Jesus to visit those in prison,” he said.
The president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, offered similar sentiments, saying: “This has been and remains a most difficult time for survivors of child sexual abuse and those who support them”.
“We acknowledge the pain that those abused by clergy have experienced through the long process of the trials and appeal of Cardinal Pell,” Coleridge said. “We also acknowledge that this judgment will be distressing to many people.”
The decision and reasons from the appellant judges ran to some 300 pages, but Ferguson read a summary of the judgment to a court packed with media, survivors and Pell supporters on Wednesday.
“Cardinal Pell’s conviction and this appeal have attracted widespread attention, both in Australia and beyond,” she said.
“He is a senior figure in the Catholic church and is internationally well known. As the trial judge, Chief Judge Kidd, commented when sentencing Cardinal Pell, there has been vigorous and sometimes emotional criticism of the cardinal and he has been publicly vilified in some sections of the community. There has also been strong public support for the cardinal by others. Indeed, it is fair to say that his case has divided the community.”
She said it was important that Pell was not made a scapegoat for any perceived failings of the Catholic church to address child sexual abuse. But she was unequivocal about her and Maxwell’s judgment in relation to the five charges on which Pell was convicted.
“The complainant was a very compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth,” she said.