Australian Cardinal George Pell in a file photo. Image: Twitter
Australian Cardinal George Pell in a file photo. Image: Twitter

A guilty verdict in the sexual abuse trial of Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, is one of the country’s most sensational news stories of 2018, but Australian media is unable to report it.

Cardinal Pell, who has also been one of the closest advisers to Pope Francis as his de facto finance chief, was this week found guilty by unanimous jury verdict in a Melbourne Court of five charges of sexually abusing two choir boys in the 1990s.

He is due to be sentenced in February, but can also be expected to appeal.

It was the second trial on the charges after an earlier jury was unable to reach a decision, and after a number of other charges were struck down because of doubts on the credibility of witnesses.

Australian media, however, have been unable to report on either the trial or the verdict since the County Court in Melbourne slapped a suppression order on the court proceedings in June.

All Australian media has been able to report this week is the news that Pell has been removed from a senior council of advisers picked by Pope Francis to guide him on the future of the Church. The trial has attracted intense scrutiny in Australia because of Pell’s high profile as a former Archbishop of both Sydney and Melbourne.

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Cardinal George Pell (L) with Pope Francis (R) at the Vatican. Photo: Twitter

In the latter role, he led the Church’s “Melbourne Response” in the 1990s to allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, which has been widely criticized as a vehicle to cover up and downplay the seriousness of the issue.

The “Melbourne Response” was to offer ex gratia payment to victims, without the Church acknowledging any responsibility for the sexual abuse. Around 350 cases were examined, and 97% of them were proved.

In this decade, Pell’s appearances before a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse also attracted strong criticism from abuse survivors, particularly his assertion that he was too ill to travel from Rome to Australia to give evidence. Instead, he gave video evidence from Rome.

Despite his apologies to victims, Pell has been seen as lacking empathy and has attracted widespread condemnation in Australia as a symbol for the perceived inadequate response of the Church, and its reluctance to take full moral responsibility.

The charges against him came after a series of reports by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2017, where reporters had been contacted by people making allegations against Pell. Earlier this year, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a public apology to sexual abuse victims in the Federal Parliament.

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Cardinal George Pell outside of a Catholic church. Photo: Twitter

The Royal Commission made several recommendations to the Catholic Church, one of which was to break the seal of confession, and legally require priests who were told of abuse in a confessional to report it to police. The Church has refused to do this, citing its religious freedom. It was, however, the first non-government institution to sign up to the government’s redress scheme for victims in May this year.

The County Court based its gag order decision on fears that Pell, 77, would not receive a fair trial amid what would have been a media storm, and any ongoing coverage could prejudice a second trial. Pell is due to face similar charges that he abused a boy at a swimming beach south of Melbourne; that case is due to be heard next year.

While Australian media is unable to report on the verdict, reports of the outcome have filtered back into the country from offshore news sites, radio and social media. The Pell case and the Royal Commission come as the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, face falling church attendances and the strong rise of atheism in Australia.

The 2016 Census showed that the percentage of Australians describing themselves as having “no religion” is the fastest growing category in the population, having grown from 22.3% of all Australians in 2011 to 30.1% in 2016. Over the same period, the number of Australians identifying as Catholic fell from 25.3% to 22.6%.

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