Child sexual abuse victims have all eyes on the Vatican, waiting for swift and decisive action by Pope Francis in the wake of George Pell’s failed appeal against his convictions.
Unfortunately for them, they could be waiting for some time.
The Court of Appeal’s decision to reject the Cardinal’s Pell’s appeal against his child sexual assault conviction yesterday has been called one of the most significant judgments in recent times.
Undoubtedly, the decision has global ramifications for the Catholic Church.
We’ll wait until the Cardinal exhausts all appeals
Despite this, the Vatican’s response has been short and devoid of any plans for affirmative action against the former senior church official.
Instead, in a brief statement, the Vatican reiterated that George Pell maintains his innocence, and that it is now “his right to appeal to the high court”.
The statement also says: “At this time, together with the church in Australia, the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members who commit such abuse.”
The statement is grounded in the presumption of innocence – that a person should be presumed innocent until and unless his or her guilt is proven in a court of law or, by extension, until and unless all of their appeal avenues have been exhausted.
Concerns about the failure to act decisively
However, the inaction of the Church has divided followers and frustrated victims.
It has also raised concerns about the stated commitment of the Church to treating the issue of child sexual abuse seriously.
Just last year, the Pope declared a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for such abuse and forced the resignations of several senior priests who had been found guilty of child sexual abuse or covering up abuse by fellow priests.
He also defrocked Chillean Priest, Reverend Fernando Karadima Karadima who was found guilty of a range of sexual offences against children in 2011, and also former archbishop of Washington DC, Theodore McCarrick, over claims of abuse of minors.
But a few months later, during a month-long ‘Synod’, or conference, for Bishops, the Pope told his senior clerics that the Church itself was being victimised over claims of child sexual abuse, and persecuted by “the Devil”.
So far, Pope Francis has remained silent regarding Cardinal Pell, who was found guilty by a jury last December.
The silence has angered abuse victims, who are calling on the Vatican to act decisively.
Although he is the most senior Catholic convicted of child sexual offences, George Pell remains a member of the College of Cardinals, and retains the power to vote to elect a new pope. His profile remains on the Vatican website.
Internal investigation by the Vatican
Reports suggest the Church hierarchy is divided about how to handle Pell.
In February this year, it announced its own internal inquiry into the cases, to be run by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, a body with the power to investigate its own. But investigations are yet to commence.
An issue for the Church worldwide
Around the world over the past few years, sexual assault complainants have begun to come forward in large numbers.
A lengthy police investigation in Chile found a “culture of abuse” and pattern of inaction and concealment within the Chilean Catholic Church.
A similar investigation found child sexual assault rife within the Catholic Church in America.
Reports from Germany and Ireland similarly found that thousands of children were sexually abused by clerics in the past few decades.
Nuns too, have spoken of their abuse at the hands of Catholic Priests.
In Australia alone, the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse received 4,444 reports of abuse, involving 1,800 Catholic Church figures. The data presented a very damning picture of systemic child abuse within the Church – conduct that’s been going on, condoned and covered up since the 1950s, although many believe that it is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is often the case that victims of child sexual abuse don’t fully come to terms with the impact until well into adulthood, and many don’t report it, particularly if they believe the perpetrators wield enormous power and standing in their communities.
If the Catholic Church is to face the issue head on, with respect for victims and an intention for real change within its culture, it must start with listening to and understanding the trauma faced by victims.
It must also take proper steps compensate those victims affected, and respect the decisions made by courts, not just in Australia, but around the world.