ROME – After an Australian court rejected an appeal by Cardinal George Pell to overturn his conviction of sexual abuse, the Vatican has said they respect the country’s judicial system but noted that Pell has maintained his innocence throughout legal proceedings.
An initial trial last fall ended in a hung jury. A second trial that concluded last December found Pell guilty of abusing two choirboys and in March he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Pell immediately launched an appeal, but on Wednesday the Victoria appeals court announced that it would uphold Pell’s conviction in a 2-1 decision.
In an Aug. 21 statement, the Vatican reiterated its respect for the Australian judicial system, saying the Holy See “acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal.”
However, the Vatican also noted how Pell has consistently denied the charges against him, saying that as 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.”
The Vatican made assurances of its closeness to victims of clerical sexual abuse and reiterated its commitment to pursue “through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse.”
Following the announcement of Pell’s guilty verdict in February, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) launched its own canonical investigations into Pell. If found guilty, he could face removal from the clerical state; however, the results of the Vatican investigation likely would not be published until after the conclusion of Pell’s second appeal.
In a separate statement Wednesday, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni referred to Pell’s case in the CDF, saying that as in other cases, the department “is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case.”
Bruni clarified that precautionary measures implemented by Pope Francis after Pell’s original guilty verdict in February, namely that he is forbidden from exercising public ministry and prohibited from having contact with minors, are still in place.
In an Aug. 21 statement following the ruling, Pell’s spokesperson Katrina Lee said Pell is “obviously disappointed” in the decision to uphold the conviction, but his legal team will “thoroughly examine” the judgement in order to pursue a second appeal with Australia’s High Court.
Despite the 2-1 split decision, Pell “maintains his innocence,” Lee said, voicing thanks to Pell’s supporters.
In their own statement, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ conference insisted that “all Australians must be equal under the law,” saying they “accept today’s judgement accordingly.”
They noted the lengthy proceedings of the Pell case have been especially painful for victims of clerical abuse and expressed their closeness but recognized that the judgement on Pell’s appeal “will be distressing to many people.”
“We remain committed to doing everything we can to bring healing to those who have suffered greatly and to ensuring that Catholic settings are the safest possible places for all people, but especially for children and vulnerable adults,” they said.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, where Pell served as archbishop from 2001-2013, said the split decision on Pell’s appeal is consistent with differing results of Pell’s two trials, the first of which closed with a hung jury leaning toward Pell’s innocence, and the second of which resulted in his unanimous guilty conviction.
Fisher urged all parties “to maintain calm and civility” in what has been an intense high-profile case.
Noting that Pell has “strenuously maintained his innocence” throughout proceedings, Fisher said Pell’s status within the Catholic Church is up to the Vatican to decide and voiced his belief that “the Holy See may well wait until the appeal process has been exhausted” in order to make a decision in this regard.
He apologized to victims of clerical sexual abuse, who were “harmed by people you should have been able to trust,” but he acknowledged that there are many people in the Catholic community “who will find it difficult to come to terms with this judgment, especially those who know the Cardinal and will struggle to reconcile this outcome with the man they know.”
As the world waits to hear if Pell’s legal process will continue, Fisher said he will be available to provide “pastoral support” to any who wish to speak with him “who may have found their faith tested.”
Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, where Pell served as archbishop from 1996 until 2001, issued his own statement saying he “respectfully” accepts the court’s decision, and encouraged others to do the same.
“That there have been two trials, and now today’s decision in the Court of Appeal, the complexity of the search for the truth in this matter has tested many, and may very well continue to do so,” he said, sending his thoughts and prayers to the alleged victim who came forward.
Voicing his willingness to meet with and provide pastoral support to the victim, Comensoli said he will also ensure that 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.”
Noting that the process has been both “damaging and distressing” for many people, Comensoli emphasized his closeness to Catholics in Melbourne and reiterated his commitment to supporting abuse survivors in their path toward healing.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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