Cardinal George Pell is Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric, the third most senior official in the Vatican and on Thursday became the highest-ranking Vatican official to be charged in the church’s wide-reaching, long running sexual abuse scandal.
When Victoria Police announced that the 76-year-old had been summonsed to Melbourne on multiple historical charges, Pell went before the world’s press and vehemently declared that he was looking forward to his day in court and the opportunity to clear his name.
Sitting on an elevated stage, the Vatican seal looming large on the wall behind him, the Ballarat man said, “I’m innocent of these charges – they are false.
“The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
But for his alleged victims, Pell’s charges being laid was a moment of victory, of validation.
Speaking to The Herald Sun, the lawyer for two men who claim to have been abused by Pell said they were “over the moon”.
“It’s been very difficult for them to stick their neck out,” Ingrid Irwin told the newspaper. “To come out against someone who is second to God, in some people’s minds, has caused all sorts of problems for them.”
But more than that, argues Dr Pam Stavropoulos of childhood trauma organisation The Blue Knot Foundation, it’s “a really historic event” for all survivors of institutional sexual abuse.
“This announcement that such a senior figure in the Catholic Church has been charged and has a case to answer is enormously significant, and a really powerful message in validating survivors and the community as a whole that theses offences are taken very seriously and that no one is immune from accountability,” she told Mamamia.
The bravery of these accusers is immense, given, Dr Stavropoulos argues, the “terrible” barriers that survivors are up against.
“The very fact average age of disclosure of child sexual abuse is quite late into adulthood for many people – if they disclose at all – is itself a testament to how difficult it is to come out and tell anyone,” she said.
“The dynamics of shame, of secrecy, of worrying about what other people will think, whether they’ll be believed, that’s really a secondary trauma on top of what they’ve already undergone. It’s a double whammy.”