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.”
Those who do feel safe enough to make such allegations, then have yet another serious challenge ahead of them as the investigation and court process proceeds.
"Disclosure is really the first step. It's an important step, of course," Dr Stavropoulos said. "But a lot needs to follow in terms of accessing the healing and the support that will allow people to go on to have some quality of life.
"This announcement [about Cardinal Pell] is very validating from that point of view as well. The messages from it - about the legitimacy of the issue, that no one is immune from scrutiny - bode well hopefully for support services in the future."
A survivor shares what it takes to fight back after child sexual assault. Post continues below.
According to survey data released by The Australian Catholic Church in February, some seven per cent of priests working between 1950 and 2009 have been accused of child sex crimes.
But none as high profile as Pell.
The precise nature of the sexual assault charges against the Cardinal remain unclear - Victoria police on Thursday said only that they are "multiple", "historic" and involve "multiple complaints". Of course, they are yet to be tested in court.
But as Steven Spaner, volunteer coordinator of victim's rights group SNAP Australia in a statement, "This is probably the most significant action to be taken on behalf of survivors of clergy sexual abuse ever.
"SNAP is so proud that [Victoria Police] have shown the world that NO ONE is above nor beyond the law. They have shown the preservers of justice and protectors of the vulnerable and innocent around the world what they can and should be doing to protect children and obtain justice for survivors."
Cardinal George Pell is required to attend a file hearing in Melbourne Magistrates Court on July 18.