After criminal acquittal, Cardinal Pell likely to face several civil suits

Cardinal George Pell 4 in the Vaticans Apostolic Palace on March 17 2016 Credit Alexey Gotovskyi CNA 3 17 16 Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican, March 2016. | Alexey Gotovskyi/CNA.

The High Court of Australia this week overturned Cardinal George Pell's conviction for five alleged counts of sexual abuse, and despite his release from prison, Pell is likely to face several civil lawsuits from alleged abuse victims and their families.

The High Court on April 7 overturned Pell's 2018 conviction for alleged abuse of two choir boys. The father of one of the alleged victims in the criminal case- who has since died- is suing the Catholic Church, claiming Pell's alleged abuse was the reason for his son's "sudden turmoil" in 1996, according to his lawyer Lisa Flynn.

"We will continue to pursue a civil claim on behalf of our client despite the High Court's ruling today. He has suffered immensely and maintains George Pell was responsible for his son's sudden downward spiral after he abused his son as a young choirboy," Flynn said April 7.

The other alleged victim, referred to in court as Witness J, will not be filing a civil suit, his lawyer told The Guardian.

That complainant said that he and another choir boy were sexually abused by Pell after Sunday Mass while the cardinal was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and 1997.

According to the complainant, Pell exposed himself and forced the two teenage choir boys to commit sex acts upon him, while the cardinal was vested, almost immediately after Mass in the priests' sacristy at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1996. The complainant also said that Pell fondled him in a corridor in 1997.

Pell was convicted in 2018, in the second trial concerning the allegations. The first trial ended in a hung jury.

The cardinal was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he had been required to serve at least three years and eight months before being eligible to apply for parole. Pell would have been eligible for release in October 2022.

Pell, 78, has maintained his innocence.

At least two civil lawsuits against Pell have already been filed.

One, filed during March 2019, was brought by a man who claims that Pell- as well as several nuns- abused him as a boy when a resident at a boy's home near Melbourne between 1974 and 1978.

The lawsuit names Pell; the trustees of the Sisters of Nazareth, who formerly were responsible for the management of the boy's home; the state of­ Victoria; and the Archdiocese of Melbourne, The Guardian reports. The alleged victim is seeking damages for psychiatric injury, loss of wages and medical expenses.

A third lawsuit, brought during June 2019, alleges that Pell, as episcopal vicar for education in the Ballarat diocese from 1973 to 1984, knew of an abuser's crimes and was involved in moving him from school to school.

The suit alleges that the actions of former Christian Brother Edward Dowlan, who is serving jail time after admitting to the abuse of more than twenty boys, were known to Pell and that the cardinal did nothing to protect the victim.

Bishop of Ballarat Paul Bird, Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli, and the Catholic Education Commission are also named in the suit, the Daily Mail reports. 

An Australian royal commission launched in 2013 to investigate institutional responses to child sex abuse cases has led to Pell being questioned several times about what he knew about alleged abuse that took place under his watch. The Guardian reports that the commission's findings in this area have been heavily redacted due to legal proceedings, but that the redacted findings are expected to be released "in the coming weeks."

In addition to the civil lawsuits in Australia, Pell is now expected to face a canonical proceeding in Rome, overseen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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Shortly after the High Court announced its decision, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane released a statement on behalf of the Australian bishops' conference saying that the news "will be welcomed by many, including those who have believed in the Cardinal's innocence throughout this lengthy process."

But, Coleridge said, the result "does not change the Church's unwavering commitment to child safety and to a just and compassionate response to survivors and victims of sexual abuse."

"The safety of children remains supremely important not only for the bishops, but for the entire Catholic community," the archbishop said.

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