Disgraced Catholic Cardinal George Pell was sent back to jail on Wednesday after an Australian court rejected his landmark appeal against convictions for child sex abuse. Once the Vatican’s third-ranking official, 78-year-old Pell will continue his six-year sentence for sexually assaulting two 13-year-old choirboys at a Melbourne cathedral in the 1990s.
Pell wore a dark suit and occasionally bowed his head as Chief Justice Anne Ferguson read the ruling and cheers rippled into the court from a large crowd gathered outside. Ferguson said that Pell would be eligible for parole in three years and eight months, although the cardinal could yet ask Australia’s High Court to hear a further appeal.
Pell is the world’s most senior Catholic convicted of child sex abuse, making his case and Wednesday’s decree a benchmark moment for believers and victims groups around the world. He previously helped elect popes, ran the Vatican finances and was involved in the Australian church’s response to child sex abuse claims. “For many survivors, a conviction being upheld against a high-profile, once-powerful perpetrator underlines faith in the justice process and the possibility of speaking out,” said Pam Stavropoulos of Australia’s Blue Knot Foundation, a child victims’ group.
Pell’s lawyers had raised 13 objections to his convictions, casting doubt on everything from the physical possibility of Pell removing his robes to orally rape a boy, to the credibility of the main witness. The case was unusual in that it relied heavily on the closed-door affidavit of the sole surviving victim. Two of the three judges described the victim as a “very compelling witness” who “was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth”.