ROME—Cardinal George Pell, the 76-year-old head of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy, will stand trial in Melbourne, Australia, for criminal sexual abuse he is alleged to have inflicted on young boys in his home country during the 1970s and ’90s.
Exact details of the charges have not been made public due to victim privacy laws, but one of the alleged incidents apparently took place over a 12-month period with a child from St. Joseph’s Boys Home, according to reporters in Australia. Another is purported to have occurred at various times with the same victim in a local swimming pool frequented by a Catholic youth group under Pell’s supervision.
Pell’s alleged behavior has been the focus of a committal hearing in Australia meant to determine if there is enough criminal evidence to support a jury trial. Pell left Vatican City last June to face his accusers, despite initially pleading ill health that would have kept him safe inside the protected Vatican city-state, where he enjoys diplomatic status.
After a month of hearings in which the court heard disturbing details of the alleged abuse from a number of victims, including one event that is said to have occurred during the screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Magistrate Belinda Wallington ruled that several of the accusations were to be dismissed due to either lack of or incoherent evidence. Only two of the many allegations against him have enough solid evidence to warrant a trial, she said, though it cannot yet be reported which two those are.
When she asked Pell, who was present for the 9:30 a.m. hearing, to enter a plea, he said “Not guilty” in a booming voice that echoed around the courtroom, witnesses said. He was then escorted out under heavy police guard, amidst protesters and supporters who had gathered. He has been ordered to stay in Australia and cannot leave his residence without permission in lieu of bail, which is generally required for sex-offender defendants in Australia. He has been staying at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Sydney, where 40 trainee priests live. He has been summoned to appear in court again Wednesday morning to set the criminal trial calendar.
Pell has previously been found complicit by the Australian Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse of a widespread coverup in the Australian church. In early 2016, he gave evidence via video link from Rome to the commission, during which he admitted mistakes. “The church has, in many places, certainly in Australia, mucked things up, has let people down,” Pell told the commission. “But I’m not here to defend the indefensible.”
Pell has faced especially powerful accusations about what he knew from David Ridsdale, the nephew of one of Australia’s most notorious convicted pedophile priests. Ridsdale testified to the commission that Pell had bribed him to keep him quiet about his uncle’s sexual abuse against minors. Ridsdale recounted a conversation he allegedly had with Pell more than 30 years ago:
Ridsdale: “Excuse me, George, what the fuck are you talking about?”
Pell: “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet.”
Ridsdale: “Fuck you, George, and everything you stand for.”
The Australian website Broken Rites, which has given a voice to those alleging abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, published one of Pell’s accuser’s stories, who outlined his alleged abuse by the powerful prelate.
“At the camp, during some form of activity in a tent (such as pillow fighting or wrestling), the respondent [George Pell], while facing the complainant, put his hand down the inside of the complainant’s pants and got a good handful of his penis and testicles. There were other altar boys in the tent at the time who were participating in the other playful activities,” the accuser told Broken Rites.
Pell’s legal woes come at a delicate time for Pope Francis, who has been criticized for sending mixed messages about clerical sexual abuse. Over the weekend, he met individually with victims of clerical sex abuse from Chile who he had previously accused of slander for accusing one of his recently appointed bishops to head a local diocese. He has since walked back those comments, inviting several victims to Rome for open-ended meetings. The Vatican has not released the content of those meetings, but the victims will meet with the press Wednesday afternoon.
On news of Pell’s impending criminal trial, the Vatican was quick to release a statement that seemed to suggest that it was not ready to give up on Pell. “The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence Cardinal George Pell. Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place.”
Many wonder why, after Pell has already been found complicit in the coverup of clerical sexual abuse, that he should get to keep his job as head of the Secretariat for the Economy now that he is standing trial on allegations that he, too, is an abuser. No one has taken Pell’s place at the head of the secretariat, even as the pope struggles to institute financial reforms. An empty chair is also being kept for him on the eight-member committee of cardinal advisers to the pope, who are the pontiff’s closest advisers.
Francis, who has at times vowed zero tolerance when it comes to clerical sex abuse, is now faced with a daunting decision. If he lets Pell go, the prelate will lose diplomatic immunity that could keep him from serving jail time if he is convicted of the crimes he is on trial for. And if he keeps him as part of his Curia, he will have a hard time denying that he, too, is part of the longstanding network of those who protect abusers.