Disgraced cardinal George Pell was today sentenced to six years in jail for five counts of sexual abuse against two Melbourne choirboys dating back to the 1990s, becoming the highest-ranking Catholic clergyman ever sentenced for child sex abuse.
The sentence has been criticised by some survivors of child sexual abuse and their advocates, who claim the punishment is not commensurate with the crime. Others have expressed relief that the process is over.
Here’s how the sentencing was broken down, and the reasoning behind the judge’s decision.
While each charge had a maximum applicable sentence of ten years imprisonment, Chief Judge Peter Kidd told a packed County Court of Victoria courtroom that Pell will serve a four-year “base sentence” for the count of sexual penetration against one of the two 13-year-old choirboys listed as victims.
In addition, Kidd handed down four sentences for the remaining charges: two individual sentences of two years and six months, one sentence of 15 months, and one sentence of 18 months.
Kidd ruled that portions of those four sentences will be served concurrently with the four-year base sentence. He ruled 12 months of the first sentence of two years and six months could be served concurrently with the base sentence, along with four months of the second sentence of two years and six months.
In addition, he ruled two months of the 15 month sentence and six months of 18 month sentence will be served concurrently. That tallies up to six years behind bars, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.
If Pell is granted parole at the earliest possible juncture, he could be a free man by 2024.
Chief Judge Peter Kidd’s remarks
Kidd addressed the court for an hour before delivering his sentence. In that time, he reflected on the complex nature of the case, which has attracted international attention.
Firstly: the intense reaction to Pell’s conviction. Kidd noted the intense community backlash against Pell after a suppression order pertaining to his December conviction was lifted last month, condemning what he perceived as a “witch hunt” or “lynch mob mentality” against the clergyman.
Kidd accepted that community sentiment regarding the case may have been exacerbated by the findings of the child abuse royal commission, which found evidence of systemic abuses within the Australian Catholic Church, but he rejected the notion those emotions should contaminate his ruling on the Pell trial.
“To other victims of clerical or institutional sexual abuse, who may be present in court today or watching or listening elsewhere, this sentence is not and cannot be a vindication of your trauma,” Kidd said.
“Cardinal Pell has not been convicted of any wrongs convicted against you.”
“Cardinal Pell does not fall to be punished for any such wrongs.”
Kidd also contended that Pell’s personal circumstances warranted sentences below the possible maximum. The same negative public sentiment against Pell would likely be expressed behind bars, and conceded that prison time would be very, very difficult for a 77-year-old man.
Furthermore, Kidd ruled Pell’s return to public life as a clergyman would impossible after his release.
The simple fact of Pell’s age also influenced the sentencing, Kidd said. The courtroom heard it was a “heavy reality” that he may well spend the remainder of his life in prison.
There was also the issue of Pell’s ill health. After his sentencing in December, Pell was granted bail so he could undergo knee surgery. Since that operation, he has made use of mobility aids.
Kidd noted Pell’s clean criminal record, including the fact no court has found Pell guilty of re-offending in the 22 years since his abuses at St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Kidd added that he had also taken character references into account. It was reported last month that former prime minister John Howard had provided one of those character references.
Finally, Kidd recognised that only one of the victims listed in complaints is alive. The judge recognised that sexual abuse can have debilitating impacts on children and the ramifications can be seen later in their development, but said that one victim’s death from an accidental heroin overdose in 2014 was not considered to be a direct result of Pell’s offending.
Although Pell must now register as a serious sexual offender, Kidd said he believes the fact Pell has not been convicted of any similar offences in the intervening 22 years is evidence he does not represent a continued threat to the community.
Kidd said the sentence reflected the severity of Pell’s acts, which he described as “breathtakingly arrogant”, “perverted”, “egregious”, and of profound impact on two vulnerable children.
Pell maintains his innocence and is appealing his conviction. That hearing is set for June. Until then, the man who was once the third-highest ranking Catholic in the world will spend his days behind bars.
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