An Australian appeals court on Wednesday upheld the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, who was found guilty earlier this year of molesting two 13-year-old choir boys in the 1990s. And yet, Pell still retains his title in the Catholic Church.
The Vatican said it is waiting for Pell to make his final appeal to the High Court, Australia’s supreme court, before launching its own investigation. It noted that Pell has always maintained his innocence. One abuse survivors’ group says the decision to hold off on discipline is “cowardly” and shows the Church hasn’t made it nearly far enough on responding to sexual abuse.
Pell, Pope Francis’ former finance minister, is the highest-ranking church official to ever be convicted of child sexual abuse. He has been imprisoned since an Australian court sentenced the 78-year-old to six years in prison in March.
Tim Lennon, the president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says the church should have been decisive following Pell’s conviction and immediately defrocked him.
“I don’t know what other proof any organization needs other than a conviction. Them saying ‘Well, let’s wait for the appeal,’ that’s sort of a cowardly way to approach someone who was convicted of sexual abuse and rape,” Lennon tells TIME.
According to the Associated Press, Pell is no longer a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals or a Vatican official.
Massimo Faggioli, a professor of historical theology at Villanova University, a private Catholic institution, says that he believes the Vatican’s handling of the Pell case shows it made a strategic decision to allow Pell to face secular justice – –and that shows progress.
Faggioli contends that Pell’s conviction has caused a divide between the conservative and liberal sides in the Church, and by not interfering the Vatican is remaining neutral. He recalls the Church’s controversial handling of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who was accused of covering up child sex abuse. Law was allowed to resign in 2002 and move to Rome, where Faggioli says he was “given a safe haven in the Vatican and shielded from the American justice system.”
“This was just 15 years ago, this is not centuries ago,” Faggioli says. “So that is frustrating but is a huge step forward for the Vatican, accepting that there is no possible fight against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church without secular justice.”
Following the Victoria Supreme Court’s 2-1 ruling against Pell, the AP reports that his attorneys are considering a further appeal to Australia’s High Court.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement that, “As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.”
According to the AP, Bruni further stated that the Vatican will allow Pell to exhaust all of his appeals before they begin an internal investigation, which Bruni says is consistent with how the church has handled other sex abuse cases.
This is a seeming reversal from the Vatican, which said in a statement in February following the announcement of the guilty verdict that investigations into Pell would begin.
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will now handle the case following the procedure and within the time established by canonical norm,” interim director of the Vatican press office Alessandro Gisotti said in a statement at the time.
Lennon says that history shows survivors of clerical sexual abuse still should not look to the church for any kind of justice.
“It makes me speechless that they’ve kept him as a cardinal,” Lennon says. “That means he is the prince of the Church — the third-highest ranking member of the Church. So now we’re faced with a situation where survivors have to rely on civil courts to achieve justice because we have not seen that within the Church.
He says part of the problem is that the Church continues to refer to its own precedent for how it handles abuse cases. “And we have found over the last 30 years that these processes do not protect children, and so when we have civil society taking action we find this is the greatest form of providing justice for victims.”
Faggioli says he is sympathetic to survivors of clerical sexual abuse who expect more from the Vatican.
“So even though it is frustrating — because it’s about waiting for the justice — it’s the only possible way and it is really quite astonishing in a good way for the Vatican to say ‘We don’t interfere with this, we trust secular justice in individual countries, and we will wait,'” he says. “That is quite new by historical standards.”