Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic to ever be convicted of child sexual abuse, is to be imprisoned after being sentenced today by Chief Judge Peter Kidd of the County Court in Victoria.
In proceedings conducted earlier this morning, Kidd CJ sentenced Cardinal Pell to a cumulative period of six years' imprisonment after he was convicted last December of one count sexual penetration of a child under 16 at the St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, as well as four counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence, of a child.
The non-parole period will be three years and eight months.
The cardinal will be registered as a sex offender for life, His Honour said, and will be required to hand over forensic samples in accordance with that registration.
In handing down the sentence, Kidd CJ said that he was mindful that he was sentencing the cardinal "within a unique context", and to a "not insubstantial" period of time.
This context, His Honour said, was that the Catholic cleric was one of the most senior figures within the Church, that he is "of significant interest" to those in Australia and across the globe, having had an exceptional career in the Church, but mused that the cardinal has sometimes been a "publicly vilified figure".
"You are not to be made a scapegoat for the failings of the Catholic Church," His Honour noted.
However, Kidd CJ said the Catholic cleric must sentenced "without fear or favour", and in accordance with the law: "I am not sitting in judgment of the Catholic religion or the Catholic Church. It is George Pell whom is to be sentenced", His Honour said.
"While I must punish you for your offending, you are entitled to the balanced and steady hand of justice. It is not for me to second-guess the verdict [of the jury]."
Speaking about the offending for which Cardinal Pell was convicted, Kidd CJ said there had been a "profound impact" upon J, one of the victims. With regard to the second victim, who is now deceased, His Honour said the offending "must have had an immediate and significant effect on R".
There was an added layer of "degradation and humiliation" for the two victims in the first episode of offending, His Honour said, in knowing that the abuse suffered by each of the victims was witnessed by the other.
"You were confident your victims would not complain," His Honour said, and said the argument from the defence that the offending was done in a moment of irrationality was "breathtakingly arrogant".
"I find beyond reasonable doubt that there was a breach of trust and [you] have used your position to facilitate this offending."
The offending, His Honour surmised, was an "explicit expression of your authority over them", and characterised the abuse as both "brazen" and "grave".
"On any view, you seized upon the opportunity...to abuse them. Despite there being no grooming, you had time to reflect on your behaviour as you offended, but you failed to desist."
All of the offending, His Honour said, was made worse by the breach of trust and abuse of power, elevating the seriousness of the offending. The moral culpability, Kidd CJ, continued, was "high", and the abuse did not quantify "low-end offending".
By pleading 'not guilty' to the charges, His Honour continued, there was no evidence of remorse or contrition that could be taken into account in determining the length of sentence.
The evidence before the Court, however, was that these episodes of offending were "isolated", and noted his otherwise good character and career within the Church were taken into account.
The cardinal's age and health were also considered, and the Court said that each year spent in custody will result in a decline in health. "You may not live to be released from prison," His Honour reflected, ceding it was "an awful state of affairs" for Cardinal Pell.
Kidd CJ was satisfied that the cardinal was not a risk for re-offending, given his advanced age and otherwise good character.
Consideration was also given to the notoriety of Cardinal Pell, and His Honour reflected that this could "adversely affect" his experience in custody.
The conviction of the cardinal was initially subject to a suppression order, for the reason that the Catholic cleric was to undergo a second, separate trial. That trial was aborted, however, allowing for the recent lifting of the suppression order. Two weeks ago, Lawyers Weekly spoke reported that suppression orders may be futile in today’s sociocultural landscape.
At that time, the Law Council of Australia also submitted that national uniformity of such orders was necessary, and that an inquiry into the modernisation of suppression orders should be conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission.
The sentencing proceedings were broadcast live to the public earlier this morning.
In a statement explaining why the public would be able to view the sentencing remarks of Kidd CJ, a spokesperson for the County Court of Victoria said: “The County Court is committed to the principles of open justice. Chief Judge Peter Kidd’s sentencing remarks in this matter will be broadcast live".
The sentence follows the news last week that Robert Richter QC, who acted for Cardinal Pell in the criminal proceedings, was stepping away from his role as barrister to the Catholic cleric, saying he was “too involved for too long”.
At the time of the lifting of the suppression order on Cardinal Pell’s conviction, the Vatican released a statement via ad interim director of the Vatican Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, saying the Holy See – “while awaiting the definitive judgement” of a looming appeal of the conviction – unites itself “with the Australian bishops in praying for all victims of abuse”.
“The Holy See agrees with the statement issued by the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference regarding the sentence of guilt in the first instance concerning Cardinal George Pell. This is painful news that, as we are well aware, has shocked many people, not only in Australia.”
“As already expressed on other occasions, we have the utmost respect for the Australian judicial authorities. Out of this respect, we await the outcome of the appeals process, recalling that Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the last stage of appeal.”
MORE TO COME.