ROME—On Monday, the shutters of Australian Cardinal George Pell’s lavish apartment in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica were open and cleaners could be seen dusting the window sills. Pell had clearly hoped that he would be free to return to this upper-floor flat and to the life he once enjoyed. But on Wednesday, three Melbourne judges decided that Pell will be staying in an Australian jail after being convicted of child sexual abuse.
“By a majority of two to one, the court of appeal has dismissed Cardinal Pell’s appeal against his conviction,” Chief Justice Anne Ferguson announced.
Pell was said to have been sitting with his head bowed as the decision was announced, while cheers from outside the building could be heard as Ferguson explained the decision.
Ferguson dismissed an argument made by Pell’s defense that there was room for reasonable doubt by the jury.
“It is not enough that the jury might have had a doubt, but they must have had a doubt,” she said. “This was a compelling witness, clearly not a liar, not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.”
Last February, Pell, 78, was convicted on charges he sexually abused two choir boys in a Melbourne cathedral in the late 1990s. He was sentenced to six years in Melbourne Assessment Prison last February, and has spent the last 175 days in solitary confinement.
Prior to his sentencing, his lawyer, Robert Richter, who has since been dismissed, pleaded for a lenient sentence, calling Pell’s abuses, a “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating.” That clearly did not help his client, who denied he had committed the act.
The Vatican did not oppose Pell’s efforts to reverse the verdict.
The day before the verdict, a Vatican spokesperson pointed The Daily Beast back to its original statement on the matter. “Cardinal Pell has reiterated his innocence and has the right to defend himself to the last degree,” it said in a statement. “Waiting for final judgment, we join the Australian bishops in praying for all the victims of abuse.”
Now that Pell’s appeal has been denied, Pope Francis is in a tight corner. Vatican policy has for years centered on placing blame for the sex-abuse scandal on local dioceses and on the bishops in charge of perverted priests. But in the case of Cardinal Pell, the highest-ranking church official to be convicted, only the pope can decide what to do now. Will he defrock the cardinal who was once in his inner circle? Will he finally take him off the Vatican website, where he is still listed as head of the Holy See Secretariat for the Economy?
Apparently not. The day of the ruling, the Vatican doubled down on its support of Pell’s innocence. “While reiterating its respect for the Australian judicial system, as stated on 26 February after the first instance verdict was announced, the Holy See acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal,” the Vatican said in a carefully worded statement. “As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.”
Last June, Pell’s lawyers launched an appeal of his guilty verdict for crimes including orally raping a 13-year-old boy. Their appeal outlined 13 grounds on which the case should be thrown out, including a lack of witness testimony and the sad fact that one of his alleged victims died from a heroin overdose in 2014 and could therefore not testify. Pell’s lawyers argued that the other victim, whose name was inadvertently outed in open court just moments before he was nearly named on a global livestream, was both a “liar” and a “fantasist.”
The recent guilty verdict arose from a second trial after an initial jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision. Pell’s appellate lawyers argued that the fact that one jury had not been able to agree left room for reasonable doubt. Pell has maintained his innocence throughout the trials. The cardinal did not testify in either one of the trials, but the juries watched a video of his interrogation in Rome in which he called the allegations “absolutely disgraceful rubbish” and a “deranged falsehood.”
A second—secret—case known as the swimmer’s trial—because the sex abuse was alleged to have happened in a swimming pool and at a summer club—was dropped in February at Pell’s sentencing for the first case due to a lack of admissible evidence, namely the scarcity of victims who had not already settled out of court for Pell’s alleged crimes.
Steven Spaner, Australia coordinator from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told The Daily Beast just minutes after the judges announced their appeal decision he was “elated” and called on the pope to act.
“This is the biggest win of the century. The trial was a huge confirmation of the efforts of survivors to get justice. If the pope is either not stripping Pell of all titles and responsibilities then the pope’s statements about enforcing the churches rejection of priests who abuse children then those words are hollow.”
“We are elated. I was very dubious when I started to see the first judge making their case, but when it was obvious he was in the minority we were overjoyed because it meant it was going to be a majority and that Pell had lost his appeal and he would serve his prison time. The pope’s new rule was enacted into law in July that actually should open the floodgates for members of the church to tell what they know and what they’ve seen about Pell and other priests. This is a historic day for survivors. Today’s decision proves no one is above the law.”
Lisa Flynn, a lawyer who represents the dead victim’s family, said her clients were waiting with “bated breath” ahead of the decision, which was delivered Wednesday morning in Australia. “This is one of the most significant legal decisions in recent history,” she told AFP. “He just wants closure so he can try to get on with his life and stop thinking about it every single day. He has expressed that he would like to see justice prevail and George Pell kept behind bars where he cannot prey on more unsuspecting children.”
In Rome, the mood was subdued. Enablers of the clerical sex scandal, like disgraced Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, have long been rewarded in exile. Law was given charge of one of Rome’s most important cathedrals after he was chased out of Boston. Even alleged perpetrators like former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was well-known for his penchant for young seminarians until he was defrocked, are rarely scorned. McCarrick represented the Holy See on crucial negotiations with the Chinese church under the last three popes. Although Pell will no longer join those ranks, the legacy of the Vatican’s missteps is long.
The Catholic Church has been embroiled in a global clerical sex-abuse crisis for the better part of the last two decades, paying millions of dollars to thousands of victims in an attempt to erase the harm that was done rather than addressing what has caused it. Last February, around the time of Pell’s conviction, Pope Francis held a conference in Rome to address the problem. Testimony from victims who suffered unthinkable abuse and from those who witnessed the cover up marked the event. But the conference produced few concrete steps to combat what many say is now a systemic sickness at the heart of the church.