From Vatican to Aussie prison cell

George Pell is the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of sexual crimes, bringing a rolling abuse scandal that has dogged the church worldwide for three decades to the heart of both the Vatican and Australian civic life.
George Pell is the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of sexual crimes, bringing a rolling abuse scandal that has dogged the church worldwide for three decades to the heart of both the Vatican and Australian civic life.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY • For two decades, George Pell was the dominant figure in the Catholic Church in Australia - a boy from a gold mining town whose ambition, intellect and knack for befriending influential people propelled him to the position of third-most senior official in the Vatican.

That came crashing down last December, when a court found him guilty of five charges of child sex offences against two 13-year-old choir boys in Melbourne.

Yesterday, Pell's fall was complete as he was sentenced to six years in prison and registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Pell is the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of sexual offences, bringing a rolling abuse scandal that has dogged the church worldwide for three decades to the heart of both the Vatican and Australian civic life.

"Your obvious status as archbishop cast a powerful shadow over this offending," County Court of Victoria Chief Judge Peter Kidd said of Pell during the sentencing, where he described Pell's crimes as "brazen" and grave".

During his trial, Pell's own lawyer described the burly 1.9m-tall cardinal as the "Darth Vader" of the Catholic Church.

Born in 1941, Pell grew up in Ballarat, a rural gold-rush town about 100km from Melbourne. He was a keen member of his college debating team, a lead actor in school productions and a champion Australian rules footballer.

His devout Catholic mother was reportedly pleased that her son had decided to enter the church. But his father, an Anglican, was bewildered that he turned down a contract from one of the country's top Australian rules football teams.

 
 

Pell completed part of his studies in Rome before being ordained as a priest for the Ballarat diocese in 1966. As his star rose, he went on to become archbishop of Melbourne and then Sydney, at the behest of Pope John Paul II.

In 2003, he was named to the Vatican's powerful College of Cardinals, a position that allowed him to vote in the conclaves that elected popes Benedict and Francis.

In 2014, he was handpicked by Pope Francis to make the church's finances more transparent.

Tall and physically imposing even in old age, eloquent yet plainspoken, Pell was the charismatic embodiment of orthodox Australian Catholicism.

However, he was a polarising national figure - revered by many conservative Catholics but criticised by liberals for his outspoken views.

At a 2002 World Youth Day event in Toronto, Pell made headlines by saying "abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people" since abortion was "always a destruction of human life".

Over the years, Pell was the subject of multiple rumours and accusations of serious wrongdoing.

He fervently denied claims that he covered up abuse by priests in Victoria state where he worked. A national inquiry into child sex abuse in Australia between 1950 and 2010 found 7 per cent of Catholic priests were accused of abuse, but that the allegations were never investigated.

Repeatedly questioned during hearings about paedophile priests in the Ballarat diocese in the 1970s and 1980s, Pell insisted he had no memory of claims of sustained mistreatment. He admitted he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in the 1970s, but said he was deceived by senior clergy about what was happening during a time of "crimes and cover-ups".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2019, with the headline 'From Vatican to Aussie prison cell'. Print Edition | Subscribe