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16 Sep 2019 6:54
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  •   Home > News > International

    George Pell's failed appeal is now a monumental test for Pope Francis and the Vatican

    George Pell had returned to his prison cell by the time his former colleagues at the Vatican woke to the news his appeal against his conviction had failed.

    George Pell had returned to his prison cell by the time his former colleagues at the Vatican had woken up to the news that his appeal against his conviction had failed.

    It was another landmark moment in a case that has stunned and divided the Catholic Church hierarchy at the Vatican.

    In Rome, Australia's most senior Catholic once wielded enormous power as the Vatican's "treasurer" working within the imposing centuries-old apostolic palace.

    Pell's conviction has shaken an institution accused of being tone deaf to the pain of victims, and victims' groups want immediate and decisive action from the Pope.

    Despite his conviction, the 78-year-old Pell remains a member of the College of Cardinals, and still has the power to vote to elect a new pope.

    Christopher Lamb, Rome correspondent for the Tablet, thinks the Pell case is now a line in the sand for the Vatican.

    "I think it calls into question the seriousness that the church is taking abuse when they leave someone who can technically vote in a conclave to elect a new Pope and has been convicted of abuse as a member of the College of Cardinals," he said.

    Mr Lamb said because Pell is the most senior Catholic convicted of child sex offences, there is still "denial" in some parts of the church.

    "I think there has been some misunderstanding of the process in Australia, a view that there's lots of different goes at getting the verdict that they might want to see," he said.

    "There is a lot of pressure on the Vatican to take action against the Cardinal."

    Vatican probe could lead to 'defrocking'

    In February, the Holy See announced its own internal inquiry into Pell, to be run by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, a body with the power to investigate its own.

    It is not clear what the focus of the Vatican's investigation will be — but the Pope may decide to laicise, or "defrock", Pell at its conclusion.

    Mr Lamb said it is likely to be a comprehensive inquiry, and if it comes to a similar conclusions as the Australian courts, he expects Pell will be removed from the priesthood.

    For now, the Holy See has revealed it will wait until Pell has exhausted every avenue for appeal — and that investigative work had not yet begun.

    In a statement, the Vatican noted Pell has always maintained his innocence and it was his right to appeal to the High Court.

    It added it acknowledged the court's decision and was committed to "pursue" clergy who commit sexual abuse.

    Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Pell had been removed from public ministry, but any possible further sanctions would not be decided yet.

    "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is awaiting the outcome of the ongoing proceedings and the conclusion of the appellate process prior to taking up the case," he said.

    Journalist and Vatican analyst Deborah Castellano Lubov said the Vatican was being "prudent" by delaying its own investigation.

    "The Vatican does not take lightly the sentences or rulings of the Australian courts; however, there have been cases where innocent people have been accused and they eventually won their appeals," she said.

    The Catholic Church hierarchy remains split on how to handle the case, she said.

    "It's a very challenging, delicate case," she said.

    "Some feel that there was no proof to demonstrate that he committed these acts, therefore there is a split opinion."

    Important test for Pope Francis

    Pell had been promoted by Pope Francis in 2014 and was an influential figure in Rome until he was removed from the Pope's Council of Cardinal Advisers late last year.

    In many ways, Pell's case is uncharted territory for the Vatican, although American cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked after the church found he had abused seminarians.

    Unlike Pell, McCarrick's case was not the subject of a trial.

    In February, Pope Francis called a summit on the abuse of children by priests around the world, promising to listen to victims of clergy abuse.

    "I think what we have seen under this Pope is more transparency and more updates when it comes to these kinds of matters," Mr Lamb said.

    Mr Lamb believes a decision on Pell's fate within the church is one of the most important tests for action and accountability the Pope has faced.

    "If the church is to make progress, it has to believe and listen to the victims of abuse who have been tested by the courts and found to convince juries," he said.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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