Finally. The fall of Cardinal George Pell as he's convicted

Finally. The fall of Cardinal George Pell

It wasn’t that long ago that I finished Louise Milligan’s meticulously researched book, Cardinal, The Rise and Fall of George Pell. It was as compelling as it was uncomfortable to read.

How this ‘brutal and dogmatic’ man rose through the ranks of the Catholic Church to become the Vatican treasurer was astonishing, particularly to many who knew him.

Even if he himself had never perpetrated a crime the material in Milligan’s book makes apparent that his conscience ought to have been far from clear.

Despite his protestations about taking a hard line on sexual abuse, his dealings with those who did perpetrate vile crimes against children – and particularly his treatment of the children and their families who suffered because of it – did not match the rhetoric. Far from it.

And now, we know, the true depth of his hypocrisy.

On Tuesday news broke that Australia’s most senior Catholic leader had been convicted of child sex offences in December of 2018. A suppression order had prevented it from being reported on account of another criminal trial he was due to face this year. When the evidence for that trial fell over the suppression order was lifted and the Australian media was free to report the details of his conviction.

A jury of 12 took three days to determine George Pell was guilty on all five charges of sexually abusing two choirboys in 1996.

Pell was convicted of four charges of an indecent act on a child under the age of 16, and one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16. His legal team has already lodged an appeal.

Ultimately the entire case turned on the testimony of one boy. He was 13 when the crime was committed and 34 when he delivered his testimony. The other boy abused died in 2014 from a heroin overdose and never reported the abuse to police.

That a young man whose identity is protected took on Cardinal Pell and won is extraordinary.

“Pell has terrified me my whole life …He was an extremely, presidentially powerful guy who had a lot of connections,” he told the court.

The victim didn’t tell anyone at the time because he feared it would risk the competitive scholarship he had won that was allowing him to attend St Kevin’s College, the scholarship that required him to participate in the choir, that ultimately put him in a room with George Pell. It’s likely no coincidence.

In so many cases of the sexual abuse cases reported by Louise Milligan in Cardinal the vulnerable were targeted: those with problems at home, whose families relied on the church for help.

“I knew a scholarship could be given or taken away even at that age,” the victim told the court. “And I didn’t want to lose that. It meant so much to me and my family. And what would I do if I said such a thing about an archbishop?”

His parents were going through a divorce and losing the scholarship would upset them.

So he said nothing.

Back then Pell had all the power, and so it was again when the matter reached the Victorian County Court two decades later.

Pell engaged a notoriously formidable defence barrister to fight the charges and it’s been reported that his legal team cost $50,000 a day. Pell had all the power money could buy and then some.

And yet a panel of jurors determined that the man abused was credible: that his account of the abhorrent sexual abuse he described as taking place in 1996 was so believable that they unanimously determined it happened beyond any reasonable doubt. It’s a gargantuan hurdle in any criminal case and here a man, a David against a terrifying Goliath, cleared it.

Reading Cardinal, reflecting as the body of evidence of malfeasance that Pell was reportedly involved in, from potentially perpetrating abuse himself to covering it up in countless ways on countless days, grew by the page I still found it unbelievable to consider he would ever be held to account.

It seemed in every instance George Pell was human Teflon: nothing ever seemed to stick. Regardless of different incriminating reports of cover ups, for Pell the promotions kept coming, all the way to the Vatican.

Until now. Perhaps, now, he will actually be forced to face the truth that no one is above the law.

It’s a credit to the man who made this happen, a man with nothing to gain and plenty to lose from pitting himself against a man who terrified him.

His courage has secured some justice.

“We have been waiting for the justice system to run its course,” Milligan said. “Nothing can undo what has been done but some justice has prevailed.”

The greatest tragedy is that the victim’s friend, his fellow choirboy and victim, never lived to see it.

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