Pell’s committal to trial will give hope to victims, says legal academic
The Australian cardinal is set to become the highest-ranking figure in the history of the Catholic Church to ever stand trial on criminal charges for historical child sexual abuse.
Earlier Tuesday morning, Victorian magistrate Belinda Wallington committed Cardinal George Pell to stand trial for at least two alleged offences, one of which supposedly occurred in a swimming pool in Ballarat in the 1970s, having determined there was sufficient evidence for a jury to consider.
Ms Wallington also found there was insufficient evidence to charge the Cardinal on multiple separate charges, one of which pertained to allegations of abuse in a cinema, also in Ballarat, and had those charges struck out.
Cardinal Pell was in court for the ruling, as he has been for the committal hearing in preceding months, having returned home to Australia from his post as treasurer for the Vatican.
Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart declined to make any substantive comment in relation to the court’s decision, but “expressed his confidence in the judicial system in Australia and said that justice must now take its course”, in an online statement published by Melbourne Catholic Magazine.
Dr Judy Courtin, who represents victims of institutional sexual abuse and completed a PhD at Monash University examining the appellate journey for child sexual assault convictions in Victoria, said the committal to trial would be hugely encouraging for victims and their families.
“Survivors, victims and families have been fighting to be heard for so long, and with the recent Royal Commission and Victorian inquiry, slowly but surely victims are beginning to be heard and believed,” she said.
“What this means — not just for people in Australia, but around the world — is that it’s worth stopping the silence. It’s worth speaking up and coming forward, because claims are now being taken seriously and believed by authorities.”
Being believed has the potential to be healing for such victims, she said, especially in light of the low rates of reporting and convictions, together with the high rates of success for appeals of convictions.
Victims are mostly concerned with not only finding justice, by way of financial or criminal accountability, but also with acknowledgement of the abuse they suffered by the offenders and institutions.
“Historically, there’s been nothing but disincentive for victims to come forward, given the potential for secondary trauma and low rates of conviction,” she explained.
“One would hope that having such a senior figure in the Catholic Church be committed to trial will give courage to victims and survivors who haven’t before spoken up to come forward and do so because, finally, we can see the criminal justice system is taking them seriously.”
“We have to wait for the outcome, of course, but finally, the most vulnerable in our society — many of whom suffer from lifelong harm — are being believed and taken seriously, and that represents an important shift forward,” she concluded.
Cardinal Pell has formally entered a plea of not guilty in response to the charges that are proceeding to trial.