Cardinal George Pell Charged With Sexual Assault

Australian legal officials and Church leaders stress that the cardinal should not be presumed guilty before he is tried.

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell (photo: CNA/Daniel Ibáñez)

MELBOURNE, Australia — The announcement of sexual-assault charges against Cardinal George Pell, the prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, sent shockwaves throughout secular society and the Church alike in his native Australia on Thursday.

Almost 18 months after media reported the existence of a formal investigation, police in Cardinal Pell’s home state of Victoria announced that the senior cleric had been summoned to appear in court next month to face multiple charges related to historical allegations involving multiple accusers.

According to Reuters, police didn’t specify the charges or the time period when the events were alleged to have occurred.

In a statement released by the Archdiocese of Sydney, Cardinal Pell, who has consistently denied allegations of abuse, expressed his intention to return to Australia, subject to his doctor’s approval, “as soon as possible” to clear his name.

Cardinal Pell would “defend the charges vigorously” and “strenuously denied all allegations," the statement said.

Cardinal Pell, 76, served as archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney before going on to manage the Vatican’s finances.

The news of his summoning to face Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18 dominated headlines here throughout Thursday, with Melbourne’s The Age newspaper describing it as a “watershed moment” for the Catholic Church.

“The implications of this development today are massive, for the Catholic Church, not only in Australia, but internationally,” Brian Coyne, editor of news and discussion forum Catholica, told the Register. “You know, this impacts on Pope Francis and the international reputation and the esteem in which the Church is being held, when one of the most senior people is charged.”

The Church’s standing was bound to take a hit among Australia’s 5.4 million Catholics, Coyne said, following on from an ongoing national inquiry into abuse within institutions such as Catholic-run schools.

“The Royal Commission has done enormous damage to the morale of everybody in the Church in Australia, and I think it’s played a major part in this further exit from the pews,” he said, noting that only about one in 10 Catholics were now believed to attend Mass on a weekly basis.

“And I think this news coming on top of all that [is] only going to cause a lot more upset and cause people to give up on the Church.”

Advocates for survivors of clerical sex abuse welcomed the charges against the high-ranking clergyman, saying it showed no one to be immune from justice.

“The charging of George Pell with historical sexual-abuse offenses sends a powerful message not only to survivors of child sexual abuse, but to the whole of society,” said the Blue Knot Foundation’s Pam Stavropoulos in a statement. “It upholds that no one is above the law, no matter how high their office, qualifications or standing.”


Presumption of Guilt?

There are concerns, however, that the intense public scrutiny of Cardinal Pell and widespread outrage over the Church’s failings have imperiled his presumption of innocence. The cardinal, who has for years denied accusations of covering up abuse by clergy around him, faced child sex-abuse allegations 15 years ago, and he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Several legal analysts quoted in The Australian newspaper earlier this week expressed concern about trial by media, stressing that any decision to lay charges should be based on the evidence alone and not public sentiment.

Among those commenting was Robin Speed, president of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia, who said that prosecutors shouldn’t proceed with charges against Cardinal Pell unless they are fully satisfied about the quality of the evidence against him. “They should not act in response to the baying of a section of the mob,” he said.

Apparently sensitive to such concerns, Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton made a point of stressing the cardinal’s innocence until proven otherwise.

“Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process, and so, therefore, it is important that the process is allowed to run its natural course,” Deputy Commissioner Patton said at the news conference in which the charges were announced.

Within hours of those remarks, the publishers of a book released last month that outlined abuse allegations against Cardinal Pell, written by Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Louise Milligan, decided to remove all copies from bookstores in the state of Victoria.

Several senior Church figures here made their own appeals for fairness.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, vice president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, stressed that Cardinal Pell had denied all charges against him and was entitled to the presumption of innocence like any other member of the public.

“In the past, the cardinal has consistently cooperated with the civil authorities, and justice now needs to run its course,” Archbishop Coleridge said in a statement.

Acknowledging Cardinal Pell as a “friend” and “brother priest” of more than 50 years, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne called for respect of his right to due process.

The archbishop said in a statement, “It is important all in society recognize that the presumption of innocence applies and that Cardinal Pell, like all Australians, is entitled to a fair trial.”


Register correspondent John Power writes from Melbourne, Australia.