George Pell looked a changed man as he was sentenced for his crime
George Pell captured by a court artist today. His sentencing was broadcast live, but the world couldn’t see his reaction as he learnt his fate. (ABC News: Fay Plamka)
In the end, he was just an elderly, grey-faced man in the dock.
Not a prince of the church, not a cardinal, but a man convicted of and sentenced for terrible crimes against children.
A man who once flew first class will celebrate his 78th birthday in prison, and at the very least, his 79th, 80th and 81st.
A large part of it will be in protective custody because this man is and remains a lightning rod for discontent in the Australian community and, as a psychiatrist who specialises in child sexual abuse once told me, prisons are full of victims of these crimes.
George Pell’s reaction to receiving his sentence was only seen by those in the courtroom — the world was watching but the broadcast stayed steadily on County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd.
We saw a man in a beige jacket and black shirt who seemed to have aged years in a matter of weeks.
His clerical collar and his Order of Australia pin were conspicuously absent.
His face was impassive, his mouth in a firmly pressed straight line, throughout the blistering hour or so of Chief Judge Kidd’s sentence for five sexual abuse charges against two 13-year-old choirboys.
The crimes were brazen, the judge said, and “breathtakingly arrogant”.
“The power imbalance between the victims and senior church leaders or officials, yourself included, was stark.”
Here was the man who dined with prime ministers, who went into battle in the culture wars, who cast an enormous shadow over the Catholic Church and Australian culture life.
He spent his days telling the rest of us how we ought to live our lives, and now, here he was, scratching out his signature on the sex offender register.
He could be on that register for life.
The view from the courtroom
I was at the front of the court. He was at the back in the dock. I glanced back at Pell — who has lodged an appeal against his conviction and denies the abuse — many times during the sentence.
One of those times was when the chief judge was describing the incident in the sacristy at St Patrick’s Cathedral — the awful abuse of those boys.
“During the incident, J and R were crying and sobbing,” Chief Judge Kidd said.
“J and R called out, but it was at a level of whimpering and whispering.
“At some point you told J and R to be quiet because they were crying.”
I craned my neck to look at Pell and saw a millisecond glimmer of recognition in his eyes as he saw me looking.
But he mostly continued to stare ahead, face as impervious as an Easter Island statue.
The same face that once glided through St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne where those two choirboys were abused.
Protesters listened on a mobile phone outside County Court in Melbourne as Cardinal George Pell was sentenced. (AAP: Daniel Pockett)
A surreal moment
It is hard to over-estimate the fall from grace that this represents for a man, who, from his very teens, had been marked out for greatness since he was at secondary school, an Oxford graduate, a Vatican treasurer, a man for all seasons.
For me, it was a surreal moment and the culmination of three years of journalism for ABC TV’s 7.30, my book Cardinal, The Rise and Fall of George Pell and most recently Four Corners.
It was the first time I had been present during the case since I was subjected to six-and-a-half hours of cross-examination by Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter QC, in Pell’s committal proceeding.
Since then, as a witness, I was obliged to stay away.
But while this has been an ordeal and a frustration for me, all I could think about this morning was the men who came forward to me and to police to tell their stories of how their childhood was ripped from them by this man who was supposed to represent all that is good in the world.
The judge’s words were powerful and beamed live to an international audience. But the ones that ring in my ears from this March morning are from the young man who was the victim of this crime.
There was another victim, of course, but he became a heroin addict at just 14 a year after this crime, and was an addict for the rest of his life until he died of an overdose at 30. His mother wept today.
But the surviving victim, whom I have met, delivered a statement through his lawyer Viv Waller.
It will be these words that stay with me:
“I appreciate that the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child.
“However, there is no rest for me.”
No rest. And that’s the thing — however long Pell languishes in jail, however the cards in relation to his appeal may fall, there will be no rest for this young man.
And that’s a tragedy.
Louise Milligan is a reporter for the ABC TV Four Corners program and author of Cardinal, The Rise and Fall of George Pell.