With all eyes on Pennsylvania and the shocking grand jury report that was released earlier this fall, it is easy to forget that cases of pedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church is a worldwide scandal. This week, that scandal touched the Vatican itself, as two cardinals – one of them a “top adviser” to Pope Francis himself – face allegations of sexual abuse or failure to protect minor children.
According to a report in the Catholic newspaper America, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty on five counts of “historical child sexual offenses” by a jury in Melbourne, Australia. The charges involve the abuse of two choirboys in 1996. This was the second trial for the 77-year-old Pell, after the first trial ended with a hung jury. For that reason, prosecutors requested that the second trial, which began on November 7th, be carried out under a media gag order.
Cardinal Pell was a member of Pope Francis' inner circle, serving as the Vatican's Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a post he accepted in 2014. Prior to that, he had served as Archbishop of Sidney and Melbourne. When charges against him were filed in June 2017, he was granted a leave of absence from his post in Rome in order to “clear his name.”
Sentencing for Pell is scheduled for February of 2019. The Pope has removed Pell from his council of advisers, along with two others: Cardinals Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Francisco Javier Errazuriz, formerly the Archbishop of Santiago, Chile.
The official word from the Vatican is that they were asked to step down for “reasons of advanced age,” as both are past the age of 80 (it is customary for church officials to retire at 75). However, while Pasinya has not been implicated in any abuse, Errazuriz is being investigated by Chilean authorities for his alleged failure to take action against priests who were reported to be pedophiles.
This all comes in the wake of the recent resignation of American cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C. Wuerl was the Archbishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 until 2006. Like his colleague Errazuriz, Wuerl has drawn fire for failing to deal with alleged sexual abuse among his subordinates during his term of office.
And where is His Holiness in all of this?
When he granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence from his post in order to face charges in his home country, Pope Francis stated – quite rightly – that one is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty (in canon law, this is known as “in dubio pro reo,” or “doubt favors the accused”). At that time, the Pope said:<.p>
“We have to wait for the justice system to do its job and not pass judgment in the media because this is not helpful. ‘Judgment’ by gossip, and then what? We don’t know how it will turn out. See what the justice system decides. Once it has spoken, then I will speak.”
Apparently, that includes the sentencing and any appeals that may follow, as His Holiness as yet to issue a statement.
Pope Francis has been criticized for not acting more assertively in the matter of child sexual abuse. Some new procedures have been put into place. Anyone in the Church who works with children must now pass a background check, and any allegations of abuse must be reported to the police.
In many states, priests and other clergy are required to report suspected cases of abuse and are subject to prosecution if they fail to do so. Nonetheless, even though the Vatican issued an order in 2011 to all bishop conferences to come up with written guidelines on how to protect children from pedophiles and hold offenders accountable, a universal policy on this issue has yet to be created.
In the meantime, the secular justice system continues to move forward, taking action where the Church does not.