Civil Courts Step In to Solve What the Catholic Church Won’t

PARIS—This week marked a major turning point in the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse crisis. An Australian court sentenced Cardinal George Pell to six years in prison for sexually abusing minors, a decision that not only makes him the highest-ranking Church official to face civil justice, but also underscores a central animating tension in the issue: the one between civil and Church authorities.

After years in which victims saw Church officials as lax and unresponsive, more protective of the abusers than of the abused, civil justice has moved in and filled the gap. Pell isn’t the only cardinal who’s been on trial. A French court last month convicted Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, on charges of covering up for an abusive priest in his diocese in a case brought by a vocal group of victims, La Parole Libérée. Their effort is now the subject of a feature film in France. In the United States, a grand-jury report in Pennsylvania released last summer found evidence of the abuse of 1,000 children—and since then, other states have begun exploring their own grand-jury investigations.

Until Pell went back to Australia two years ago to face trial, he was seen as a reformer inside the Vatican. An adviser to Pope Francis, who named him the prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy and a member of the pope’s nine-person advisory council, Pell was known in Vatican City as a straight-talking Anglophone in an opaque Italian-run bureaucracy, a man who garnered enemies by poking under the rocks in the Vatican’s finances. In Australia, though, he has become the emblem of the Church’s abuse of power: Delivering his sentence, a judge spoke of Pell’s “staggering arrogance,” The New York Times reported.

Advocates for victims are already hailing the sentence as a major breakthrough. “The mental image of the powerful cardinal behind bars will do more to deter corrupt bishops than anything Pope Francis has done to date,” Anne Barrett Doyle, who runs the advocacy group, said in a statement.

Pell, 77, was convicted of three counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child and one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16. A first trial against the cardinal ended in August with a hung jury and a mistrial. Then, in a retrial in November, a jury found Pell guilty.

The latest set of hearings unfolded mostly in a media blackout because of Australia’s defamation laws, which are favorable to plaintiffs. But with Pell’s sentencing this week, n...

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