opinion

George Pell's lawyer said his client's offence was a 'vanilla' sexual abuse case. There is no such thing.

Warning: This post features details of child sexual abuse that could be triggering for some readers. For 24-hour support, please call 1800 RESPECT

In describing his client’s offending, George Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter QC said it was “vanilla”.

Cardinal Pell was found guilty in December of five child sex offences, including orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and molesting another after Sunday mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne in 1996.

Pell’s legal team tried to argue for a lower-end sentence in court on Wednesday, armed with a binder of character references for the convicted child sex offender including one from a former Australian prime minister.

Mamamia’s daily news podcast The Quicky explains the George Pell case.

Richter argued there were “no aggravating circumstances” to one of the offences. He said it was a spur of the moment thing.

According to The Guardian, abuse survivors and advocates present in the court gasped as Richter made his arguments.

“This is no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where a child is not volunteering or actively participating,” he said.

It was a comment met with outrage. From commentators and social media users, from those present at the hearing and crucially, from chief judge Peter Kidd.

There is no such thing as a ‘vanilla’ case of sexual abuse. It is just sexual abuse.

Claiming otherwise is dangerous, ignorant and a cruel slap in the face for survivors.

Robert Richter QC leaves Melbourne County Court
Robert Richter QC leaves Victoria's County Court after George Pell's pre-sentence hearing. Image: Getty.

Richter also argued that an incident where Pell grabbed one of the boys by the genitals in an attack that lasted seconds was "fleeting". It was not worthy of a jail sentence, he said.

While it is Richter's job to defend his client, his comments attempt to minimise the experience of survivors. It infers that their experience is minor, something to easily move on from.

It is arguing the exact opposite of the truth.

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Chrissie Foster, an advocate and the mother of two girls abused by a Catholic priest, was present and called Richter's comments "outrageous".

"How can they say that? These are children, they were children, two of my children were treated to such rape," she said outside court.

"To hear people speaking like that, defending someone who would do something like that, it's outrageous, insulting and that's what victims have to put up with."

Survivors wore badges with quotes George Pell has said about child abuse
Survivors and protestors present at court wore badges with quotes George Pell has said about child abuse. Image: Getty.

Legal experts have defended Richter's tactics - but not his choice of wording.

"One of the terrible tasks that everyone has to do in sentencing is to rank the crime against every other possible crime that someone is charged with," Professor Jeremy Gans told the ABC.

Chief judge Peter Kidd hit back at Richter, making it clear that he struggled with his argument and labelled Pell's crimes as callous and brazen.

“He engaged in some shocking conduct toward two boys,” the judge said.

“At the moment, I see this as callous, brazen offending. Blatant.”

He said there was nothing to be gained from comparing different forms of sexual abuse of children.

"Of course I need to make a judgement of the overall gravity of this. But there is a limit to these kinds of comparisons."

Pell spent his first night behind bars on Wednesday night after his bail was revoked.

Each of his crimes carry maximum jail terms of 10 years. He will be sentenced on March 13.

If you have experienced sexual assault and are in need of support, please call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732. Help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also contact Bravehearts for counselling and support for survivors of sexual abuse on 1800 272 831, Lifeline for 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention, or, if you’re the partner of a person who has experienced sexual assault, you can contact PartnerSPEAK on (03) 9018 7872 for peer support for non-offending partners. 

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