This article titled “Cardinal George Pell trial ruling welcomed by survivors’ rights group” was written by Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Rome, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 1st May 2018 18.15 Asia/Kolkata
A survivors’ rights group has hailed as a “turning point” an Australian magistrate’s ruling that Cardinal George Pell, one of the most senior officials in the Vatican, will stand trial on historical sexual offence charges.
The decision by Belinda Wallington comes as the church in Rome continues to be dogged by accusations that it has failed to do enough to come to grips with a sexual abuse crisis.
For some advocates, the development in Melbourne was a rare victory for secular law, after decades in which the church has handled priests and senior clergy accused of sexual abuse within the Vatican’s own judicial system.
“[The] decision today … marks a turning point in the global abuse crisis in the Catholic church,” said a statement by BishopsAccountability.org, which tracks cases of alleged abuse. “The Australian government has put the Catholic church on equal footing with other institutions, and treated its leaders as fellow citizens.”
In Rome, the question now is whether Pope Francis is prepared to take tougher action against accused priests, as well as the bishops who have been accused of protecting them.
One prominent abuse survivor, Marie Collins, said recently that a Vatican commission created in 2013 to tackle clerical abuse had achieved “little practical change”. Two major proposals – one for an accountability tribunal for bishops, and another for new guidelines for the handling of abuse claims – have been rejected by the church hierarchy. Collins had been selected to join the commission but resigned last year, saying the church still put “other concerns” before the safety of children and vulnerable adults.
Some Vatican observers say the church’s abuse scandal has been a blind spot for Francis, because of an attitude that has at times been seen as dismissive and insensitive towards victims and complainants. Francis has steadfastly said he supports actions against accused priests and their protectors, but has emphasised the need for proof, which some say puts an impossible standard of evidence on sometimes decades-old claims.
On a trip to Chile in January, Francis criticised abuse survivors who have accused a local bishop, Juan Barros, of ignoring abuse by the country’s most notorious predator, Rev Fernando Karadima. In a press conference that caused an outcry, Francis said victims were guilty of “slander” and he was “convinced” Barros was innocent.
In April, Francis admitted – in a rare acknowledgment of wrongdoing – that he had made “grave errors” when he criticised the victims and summoned all of Chile’s bishops to an emergency summit in Rome this month to discuss the issue.
Karadima was found guilty of sexually abusing minors by a church body in 2011, and was ordered to retire to a life of prayer and penitence. But Barros has remained in place. He has denied wrongdoing but been accused by some victims of allowing Karadima to abuse them.
Last weekend, Francis met some of the survivors of Karadima’s abuse. One man, Juan Carlos Cruz, said he had spoken for more than two and a half hours with Francis. “He talked to me with great respect, affection and closeness, like a father. We talked about many subjects. Today I have more hope in the future of our church … Even though the task is enormous,” Cruz tweeted.
But the bigger test for Francis and the church, especially in the wake of the Pell development, is whether the words will be met with action.
On Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman released a short statement on the Pell case, saying the cardinal was still on leave from his duties. He did not comment on the judge’s decision. Pell has staunchly denied wrongdoing, and has pleaded not guilty to all of the allegations, which have not been made public by the court. Other charges related to the case have been dismissed.
Christopher Lamb, the Tablet’s Vatican correspondent, said the Pell case had proven to be a “painful humbling” for the Catholic leadership on the abuse scandal, and a sign that no one was immune, no matter what the outcome of the case. Pell, he said, was the most powerful official that the church in Australia had ever produced, “a titanic figure that has now hit an iceberg”.
Pope Francis, he said, was showing “a new way forward” in his apology to the Chilean victims and his decision to meet at length with them and seek their forgiveness, a papal first. “That is a model of humility that is needed,” Lamb said.
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