Cardinal George Pell should be in prison

Mat Chapin, Columnist

Everyone should know who Cardinal George Pell is. The former Vatican treasurer and Archbishop of Melbourne made history in 2018 when he was convicted by a jury on five charges of child sex abuse. He made history again last week when he was acquitted by the Australian high court after serving only 13 months in prison. George Pell is the highest-ranking church official to be convicted of child sex abuse, and for many he represented some hope for accountability in the Catholic Church, an institution that has been the subject of sexual abuse scandals for decades. 

His release prompts us to find a way forward in the quest for accountability and makes us ask serious questions about how these cases are prosecuted.  Now, there is no way for me to know whether or not George Pell committed the crimes of which he was originally convicted. Personally, I think he’s as guilty as a fox in a hen house, with the words “I DID IT” written across his forehead in red paint. But I can’t prove it. 

Pell’s incredibly high-profile case was opaque at best, featuring suppression orders that made it illegal for the press to give out certain information. The majority of the case and the acquittal happened exclusively behind closed doors. No transcripts were released, and reporters were not allowed to report on the case as it unfolded. These rules, which are common but often exploited in the Australian criminal justice system, are meant to protect the “fairness of the defendant’s trial,” but the extreme secrecy surrounding both Pell’s conviction and acquittal beg the question, “Can there ever really be accountability without transparency?” 

The Australian government’s handling of Pell’s case mirrors the ways the Catholic Church has been dealing with allegations of sex abuse, which, to put it delicately, are inadequate. With gag orders and the refusal to release evidence, how are we supposed to trust that perpetrators are being held accountable? Appeals such as Pell’s rarely succeed once a jury has made a decision, so why was Pell let off? Is this a story about an innocent man finally finding justice, or is this a story of massive institutions leveraging power to fix their reputations? We may never know for sure without more transparency and an end to insular decision-making on high-profile assault charges. 

“Witness J,” the man whose testimony was the base of Pell’s 2018 conviction, released a statement in which he expressed hope that Pell’s release will not stop other victims from coming forward. The fact that the Catholic Church is full of sexual predators has been public knowledge for a while now, and the fight for accountability is slow; but this is not the end. At the end of the day, George Pell is irrelevant. In or out of jail, his reputation is ruined. Now we have to fix the culture we live in so that more men like “Witness J” can step forward to put these monsters behind bars. Maybe one day they’ll stay there.