Cardinal George Pell, one of the most powerful figures in the Vatican and Australia’s most senior Catholic, has been charged over historic sex assault offences.
In a stunning decision certain to rock the highest levels of the Holy See, police in the Australian state of Victoria said there were multiple charges against Cardinal Pell and the case involved “multiple complainants”.
Cardinal Pell, who intends to return to Australia to clear his name, is the Vatican’s de facto treasury minister and is the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged with sexual abuse. “Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges and there are multiple complainants,” said Victoria police’s deputy commissioner Shane Patton.
“It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have, obviously, been tested in any court yet,” Mr Patton said in Melbourne. “Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process.”
Pell to return to Australia
Cardinal Pell has repeatedly insisted he is innocent.
In a statement shortly after the announcement, the Catholic Church in Australia said the cardinal “strenuously denies” the charges.
“Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will also advise on his travel arrangements,” the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said in a statement.
“He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously,” it said.
The 76-year-old will likely be forced to step down from his Vatican post to fight the charges.
Police last year confirmed that Pell was being investigated over alleged offences in Victoria in the 1970s.
A lawyer for two unnamed men who had made abuse claims against Cardinal Pell said they were “over the moon” about the charges.
“It’s been very difficult for them to stick their neck out,” Ingrid Irwin told Melbourne’s Herald Sun. “To come out against someone who is second to God, in some people’s minds, has caused all sorts of problems for them.”
‘Catastrophic’ choices by Pell
For years, Pell has faced allegations that he mishandled cases of clergy abuse when he was archbishop of Melbourne and, later, Sydney.
His actions as archbishop came under intense scrutiny in recent years by a government-authorised investigation into how the Catholic Church and other institutions have responded to the sexual abuse of children.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – the nation’s highest form of inquiry – found shocking levels of abuse in Australia’s Catholic Church.
Cardinal Pell told the Australian inquiry last year the Church made “catastrophic” choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish and relying too heavily on the counsel of priests to solve the problem.
He has said previously that he would cooperate with police over the allegations against him but threatened legal action against those “promoting these calumnies”.
“I’d just like to restate my innocence,” he told reporters in Rome last month.
“I stand by everything I’ve said at the royal commission and in other places. We have to respect due process, wait until it’s concluded and obviously I’ll continue to cooperate fully.”
Victim support groups have repeatedly attacked the Vatican for its response to the crisis, saying successive popes have failed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
“It would be naive for us to assume that people will be only relieved,” said Neil Woodger, vice president of the In Good Faith Foundation, which says it represents 460 victims of Catholic church abuse in Australia.
“They’re going to be experiencing a bit of distress as well,” he said. “It is a result that I think points to justice working and that justice is there for everybody.”
Pressure on pope
The latest development in the long-running Pell case piled pressure on Pope Francis to make good on promises to sack bishops found guilty of abuse, or of covering it up.
Francis told reporters last year he would wait until Australian justice took its course before taking a position on Pell, and that his financial controller since 2014 should not undergo trial by media.
“It’s in the hands of the justice system and one cannot judge before the justice system,” the pope said at the time. “After the justice system speaks, I will speak.”
Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that US bishops in the Boston area moved abusers from parish to parish instead of defrocking them.
“I would suspect (the charges against Pell) are going to be stunning to the Vatican and to the pope himself,” said Thomas Doyle, the US priest whose report on molestation in the church led to the discovery of cover-up practices in Boston.
“My suspicion is that the pope will do something but I don’t know what because there’s no scenario for this,” Doyle said by telephone from his home in Virginia.
Cardinal Pell Facing Historic Abuse Charges
Archdioceses of Sydney Nova Scotia
Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
29 Jun 2017
Victoria Police this morning confirmed that they have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offences. At a press conference, Victoria Police told media that Cardinal Pell has been charged on summons, and is required to appear at the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 18 July 2017 for a filing hearing.
At the press conference, Victoria police’s deputy commissioner Shane Patton said:
“It is important to note that none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have obviously tested in any court yet. Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore, it’s important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.
“Preserving the integrity of that process is essential to all of us, and so for Victoria Police, it’s important that it’s allowed to go through unhindered and allowed to see natural justice is afforded to all the parties involved including Cardinal Pell and the complainants in this matter.”
Victoria Police will not be commenting further on the matter.
Following the announcement, Cardinal Pell issued an initial statement relating to the charges.
The statement reads:
INITIAL STATEMENT FROM CARDINAL GEORGE PELL FOLLOWING ANNOUNCEMENT OF CHARGES
Although it is still in the early hours of the morning in Rome, Cardinal George Pell has been informed of the decision and action of Victoria Police.
He has again strenuously denied all allegations.
Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors who will
also advise on his travel arrangements.
He said he is looking forward to his day in court and will defend the charges vigorously.
Cardinal Pell will make a further statement in Rome at the Holy See Press Office at 8.30am, Rome time, or 4.30pm AEST.
The statement is here.
Counseling is available from CatholicCare on 131819.
For information on safeguarding and protection of children protocols and complaint handling please contact the director of The Safeguarding and Ministerial Integrity Office on 9390 5810.
For a summary of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney Policy on the care, well-being and protection of children and young people and for the Code of Conduct – Working with children and young people, please visit www.sydneycatholic.org/safeguarding.
Police statement: Cardinal George Pell charged with multiple sexual offences – video
29 June 2017
Australia’s most senior Catholic and the third-ranking official in the Vatican has been charged with multiple sexual offences by police in Victoria. ‘Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges and there are multiple complainants,’ Victoria police’s deputy commissioner Shane Patton said
George Pell, Catholic cardinal, charged with historical sexual assault offences
29 June 2017
Cardinal George Pell says he is looking forward to his day in court after being charged with historical sexual assault offences.
- Charges involve multiple complainants
- Pell has always maintained his innocence and strenuously denied any wrongdoing
- Victoria Police says charging process has involved “common and standard practice”
Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric has been ordered to appear in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18, after Victoria Police served charges on his legal representatives.
“Cardinal Pell will return to Australia, as soon as possible, to clear his name following advice and approval by his doctors, who will also advise on his travel arrangements,” a statement released by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney said.
“He has again strenuously denied all allegations.”
He is expected to make a further statement in Rome at 4:30pm AEST.
A magistrate will decide next week whether to release the details and the nature of the charges. A hearing will take place on July 6.
Last July, police confirmed they were formally investigating complaints about offences alleged to have occurred in Ballarat in the 1970s.
Pell has always maintained his innocence and denied any wrongdoing.
Deputy Commissioner Patton said the “process and procedures” being followed had been the same as those applied “in a whole range of historical sex offences, whenever we investigate them”.
“The fact that he has been charged on summons — we have used advice from the Office of Public Prosecutions and also we have engaged with his legal representatives, which is common and standard practice.”
As head of the Vatican’s finances, Pell is considered number three in the Catholic hierarchy behind the Pope.
In July, Pell said the allegations were part of a smear campaign by the media.
“The allegations are untrue, I deny them absolutely,” Pell said.
“I’m like any other Australian — I’m entitled to a fair go.”
However, he said he was “quite prepared to co-operate” with the process.
In October, three Victoria Police detectives flew to Rome to interview Pell.
A Victoria Police statement issued at the time said: “Cardinal George Pell voluntarily participated in an interview regarding allegations of sexual assault.”
Australia does not have an extradition treaty with the Vatican, even though it does with Italy.
Child sexual assault survivor advocate Chrissie Foster said it was right that the allegations would now be heard in the courts.
“I’ve been waiting to see what happens with this investigation for a long time,” she said.
Ms Foster’s daughters Emma and Katie were raped by Melbourne paedophile priest Father Kevin O’Donnell when they were in primary school in the 1980s.
His studies took him to Rome and then Oxford.
In 1971 he returned to Victoria as an ordained priest, and rose through the ranks to eventually become Archbishop of Melbourne.
He rankled progressive Catholics with his resistance to reform.
He opposed the ordination of female priests, was anti-divorce and anti-abortion and also refused communion to gay activists at one of his masses.
In 1990 he said: “Homosexuality — we’re aware that it does exist. We believe such activity is wrong and we believe for the good of society it should not be encouraged.”
His hardline conservatism caught the attention of Rome, and he was chosen to join a Vatican congregation dedicated to enforcing orthodoxy.
“There are many smorgasbord Catholics who choose a bit of this and that … my business as bishop is to proclaim the whole of the message,” he said.
In 1996, then-Archbishop Pell was the first Catholic leader to address the child sexual abuse that has plagued the church.
Photo: George Pell was made Archbishop of Sydney in 2002 where he later became a cardinal. (Reuters: Mark Baker [file photo])
He instigated a redress scheme called the Melbourne Response.
When announcing the scheme he said: “It’s a matter of regret that the Catholic Church has taken some time to come to grips with the sex abuse issue adequately.”
But the Melbourne Response, which capped compensation for victims at $50,000, was widely criticised as being legalistic and not offering enough support to victims.
He then became Archbishop of Sydney and was made a cardinal.
In 2014, he was chosen by the Pope to get the Vatican’s finances in order and he moved to Rome.
Ill health prevented him from returning to Australia in 2016 to give evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.