An Australian magistrate’s decision Tuesday that Cardinal George Pell shall stand trial by jury for historical sex abuse charges is a victory for survivors and the rule of law.
One survivor’s advocate, Phil Nagle, called it a “historical day for survivors of Ballarat,” Pell’s hometown, in which several priests were accused of misconduct. “It’s good to see him being treated like any other citizen in court,” he said.
Ann Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, an online abuse resource, called the magistrate’s decision that Pell stand trial “a turning point in the global abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.” She added: “Whatever its outcome, the judge’s decision marks the victory of accountability over impunity, and of the rule of secular law over the Vatican’s failed strategy of cover-up.”
We couldn’t agree more with Mr. Nagle and Ms. Barrett Doyle.
Pell, the Vatican’s third-ranking official, is the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be charged with sexual assault. He was charged last June with sexually abusing multiple people in Victoria from the time he was a priest in Ballarat in the 1970s until the 1990s, when he was Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell has been a controversial figure for some time; when he was promoted to his high-ranking Vatican position he was already facing allegations of mishandling clergy abuse cases while he was an archbishop in Australia.
A trial date has not been set. Details of the allegations and the number of charges have not been made public. The magistrate dismissed about half of the charges on Tuesday but said the case for the rest was strong enough to warrant trial. Pell pleaded not guilty.
When Pell was charged last June, the Vatican supported Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief, stating that it learned of the charges “with regret” and that Pope Francis appreciated Pell’s honesty and commitment. The pope granted Pell leave to return to Australia to conduct his defense. Tuesday, the Vatican issued a statement saying that “The Holy See has taken note” of the magistrate’s ruling regarding Pell’s trial and that “The leave of absence is still in place.” The statement did not mention survivors.
The pope’s ongoing support of Pell – instead of survivors – is an outrage. It reflects a lack of commitment to transparency and change by the hierarchy. That’s why Tuesday’s decision by an Australian magistrate is so encouraging and appropriate. As Mr. Nagle and Ms. Barrett Doyle point out, Pell will be just another citizen in court, subject to the decision of jurors, not the privileged manipulations of the Vatican.