A prominent former archbishop and cardinal who at one time set up one of the world’s first protocols to investigate child abuse in the clergy was sentenced to six years in prison Tuesday for molesting two choir boys in Australia.
The sentencing of George Pell is the latest dark chapter in the ongoing global scandal surrounding the Catholic Church, which has been shrouded in criticism over its handling of clergy members accused of sexual abuse.
Pell is the most senior Catholic to be convicted of child sex charges. The molestation of the choir boys happened over 20 years ago.
Victoria state County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd ordered Pell, 77, to serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he is eligible for parole. The five convictions against Pell carried a maximum possible sentence of 10 years each.
“In my view, your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance,” Kidd said in handing down the sentence.
Upon becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s, Pell set up the “Melbourne Response” diocesan protocol to investigate and deal with complaints of child sexual abuse. The protocol was the first of its kind in the world.
Pell himself used the platforms to both condemn past failings of his Church and to defend his own efforts to combat child sexual abuse in the church and care for victims.
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But at the time, Pope Francis’ former finance minister was involved in abuse of his own. He was convicted by a unanimous jury verdict in December of orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy’s 13-year-old friend, months after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne. A court order had suppressed media reporting the news until last month.
Pell’s attorney said his client denies the allegations and will appeal his convictions in the Victoria Court of Appeal on June 5.
Sexual abuse scandals have rocked the Roman Catholic Church for decades, not just in the United States but throughout the world. Courts and prosecutors have filed indictments and sued for damages to try to hold the church accountable for the abuse crisis.
Several high-ranking clergy members have gone to prison or been ordered to serve home detention sentences.
The scandals have hit the church hard financially, and many dioceses have paid millions in compensation to victims. Last summer, the Roman Catholic Church of Rochester divulged that it had paid $1.6 million to at least 20 children who had been sexually abused by 24 priests since 1950.
Eighteen U.S. dioceses and religious orders in the USA have filed for bankruptcy protection during the crisis, according to the website BishopAccountability.org, which tracks sexual abuse cases.
In explaining his sentencing decision, the judge said Pell had led an “otherwise blameless life.” Kidd said he believed given Pell’s age and lack of any other criminal record, the cardinal posed no risk of re-offending.
The judge also took pains to note that he was sentencing Pell for the offenses on which the cardinal had been convicted — and not for the sins of the Catholic Church.
“As I directed the jury who convicted you in this trail, you are not to be made a scapegoat for any failings or perceived failings of the Catholic Church,” Kidd said.
But the judge also said that Pell had abused his position of power and had shown no remorse for his crimes. Kidd described the assaults as egregious, degrading and humiliating to the victims.
Pell showed no emotion during the hourlong hearing and barely moved throughout. He stood silently with his hands behind his back as the judge read his sentence. Pell signed documents that registered him for life as a serious sexual offender before he was led from the dock by four prison officers.
In a statement, one of Pell’s victims called the judge’s sentence “meticulous and considered.”
“It is hard for me to allow myself to feel the gravity of this moment, the moment when the sentence is handed down, the moment when justice is done,” the man said in a statement read outside court by one of his lawyers, Vivian Waller. “It is hard for me, for the time being, to take comfort in this outcome. I appreciate that the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child. However, there is no rest for me. Everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal.”
Contributing: Associated Press