Hannah Kenny

Nothing stunning about it

Nothing stunning about it

I’ve never been forced to endure the unwanted touch of an individual to the point where I have been paralysed by terror.

I don’t carry the haunting memory of being raped as a child or the burden of keeping a truth so hidden for fear it will destroy me if it becomes public knowledge.

My ability to trust hasn’t been irreversibly damaged by the immoral and shamefully arrogant actions of another human being who wishes only to assert their dominance.

I wish I could say the same for the victims of child sex abuse, and although I can’t relate to what they’ve been through, I can, at the very least, imagine the pain and hurt they must feel.

It’s distressing to think one of the two choir boys who was sexually assaulted at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 is able to detail a much sadder and much more real account than I can attempt to illustrate. What’s even sadder is the other boy isn’t alive to tell his story.

Today I was hopeful that the two victims who were sexually assaulted by Cardinal George Pell would finally get the justice they so rightfully deserve, however once again, the Australian justice system has administered a lenient and coward-like sentence.

This nation has witnessed firsthand the rise and fall of George Pell, the third highest ranked Catholic in the world, yet has failed to deliver a sentence that atones for the devastating mental trauma he inflicted on two innocent children after a Sunday mass in 1996.

The victims, who for privacy reasons have been referred to as “J” and “R” in the County Court of Victoria, suffered “significant” effects as a result of former archbishop Pell’s abuse.

So “significant” that Pell was handed a maximum six-year sentence with a parole period of three years and eight months.

So “significant” that because Pell’s offences occurred over 20 years ago, he’s not considered a threat to the wider community.

So “significant” that as Pell is approaching his 80s, he’s lucky enough to receive what’s been informally called a “discounted” sentence.

Chief judge Kidd said victim J experienced “a range of negative emotions which he has struggled to deal with for many years since this offending occurred”. The second victim, victim R, died of a heroin overdose in 2014. Judge Kidd said on the basis of J’s trial, he is able to say Pell’s offending “must have had an immediate and significant impact on R.” R never reported the abuse.

A maximum of six years behind bars for destroying two boys’ innocence? Australia’s judiciary system is as gutless as Pell’s inability to show remorse or contrition for his disturbing and calculated actions in the house of god.

That’s not to mention the number of other chilling allegations reported to police against Pell over his advanced career preaching Catholicism as well as his role in the Victorian inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other nongovernment organisations (2012 – 2013).

Since Pell’s sentence was broadcast live this morning, I’ve felt a deep sense of sorrow for the victims of clergy abuse across the nation, but as chief judge Kidd made clear in his sentencing remarks, George Pell is “not to be made a scapegoat for any failings or perceived failings of the Catholic Church”. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly, but I cannot bring myself to agree with the embarrassingly soft outcome of Pell’s crimes.

While his fate is bleak given his age and health issues, his short sentencing represents the very reason why sexual abuse victims take so long to come forward – they are frightened they won’t be believed or compensated for the suffering they have sustained. It’s also incredibly painful for victims to describe the graphic details of their abuse in an invasive courtroom setting when they’ve spent years trying to erase those very memories.

Although I don’t come from a law background, I can understand how difficult it must have been for judge Kidd to come to a balanced and fair agreement about Pell’s sentencing, however it’s hard not to believe the fallen icon has received special treatment, especially since his age, health, character references and unlikelihood to offend again were outlined as reasons in determining his time in incarceration.

Today’s courtroom was filled with victims, journalists and sex abuse advocates, yet despite public outrage for Pell’s crimes, judge Kidd told Pell “in relation to the charge of sexual penetration with a child under 16 years, at the time you committed that offence, the maximum penalty was (also) 10 years’ imprisonment.” “While Parliament has since increased the maximum penalty to 15 years’ imprisonment, it is the lower maximum penalty of 10 years which applies to you,” he continued.

What message does this send to victims of abuse?

What message does this send to perpetrators of violence?

No one should be above the law, regardless of the year in which the offence was committed.

The most important people in this case, J and R, will never be able to claim the years they spent suffering in silence.

Pell maintained a public image of purity and mercy for over two decades following his offences while J and R, without a doubt in my mind, watched on in fear.

A high-profile figure who was trusted by so many has enjoyed a life of privilege and success, arguably misleading his followers and making a mockery of the Catholic church and its teachings.

I’ve seen many journalists describe George Pell’s offences and conviction as a “stunning fall from grace”, but to me, there’s nothing stunning about it. I can’t shake the feeling that this man abused his position of power for his own corrupt desires, a deranged misuse of leadership that deserves far more than six years in prison.

George Pell will challenge his conviction in the Court of Appeal later this year.