After Cardinal Pell’s conviction, can a tradition-bound church become more accountable?

A court in Australia recently convicted Cardinal George Pell on charges of molesting two choir boys 20 years ago. Pell is the most senior Vatican official ever to be convicted of such a crime.

The verdict on Pell was announced only days after Pope Francis had concluded a summit of nearly 200 Catholic bishops on protection of minors in the church. It also follows another highly publicized case – that of the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick – who was recently “defrocked” for sexually assaulting minors.

In the United States, reforms have made it mandatory for clergy to report instances of sexual abuse. And in Australia, debate rages over whether priests should be forced to break their sacred vows and report child sexual abuse if they learn about it in the confessional.

In the past, the hierarchy of the church has made it hard for cases of clerical sexual abuse to be reported and prosecuted. While Pell got indicted, others got away. And here are some reasons why.

Who is Cardinal Pell?

Once a talented Australian Rules football player, George Pell entered the priesthood and rose to become Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric. He was an articulate advocate for Catholicism and the Christian faith – once even debating atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins. In 2005, Pell was awarded the Order of Australia as a recognition of his noteworthy contribution to his country.

Cardinal Pell was among the top functionaries at Vatican. He was a member of the “Council of Cardinal Advisors,” established by Pope Francis to reform the Vatican bureaucracy. He led the restructuring of the Vatican Bank and served as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, overseeing all economic activity in the Vatican city state.

Given this distinguished record, Pell’s conviction is especially traumatic for many Catholics. Some commentators, and the Vatican itself, still have doubts about whether the Australian court reached a fair verdict.

Church structure

George Pell belongs to a religious hierarchy that is complex and tightly ordered.

At the top of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy is the pope. He is said to be the successor of the Apostle Peter, about whom Christ said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”

For Catholics, the pope is that “rock” that gives the church a firm foundation. The pope is considered to speak infallibly, or “without error,” under specific conditions concerning doctrine and morals. But he is not infallible when it comes to choosing advisers and carrying out policy.

Pope Francis speaks with two cardinals at the Vatican. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Under the pope are over 5,000 bishops, who serve the pope as successors to the original 12 apostles who followed Jesus.

There are also now 214 cardinals, who are appointed by the pope. Cardinals under the age of 80 are designated “cardinal electors” and will choose the next pope. Cardinals also govern the church between papal elections.

Cardinals rank higher than bishops, so not all bishops are cardinals. But all cardinals are bishops, although in the past there have been exceptions. George Pell is still both a bishop and a cardinal.

The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church resembles the military with its high level of administrative control. But the “church” in Catholic understanding is not just a bureaucratic body. It is a sacred institution willed by God.

Priests and obedience

Male priests have the lowest rank in the formal hierarchy. When they are ordained, they take vows of chastity as well as obedience to superiors. Usually priests are under the immediate authority of their local bishop, whose administrative area is called a “diocese.”

Although priests in many countries are mandated both by the church and civil law to report sexual abuse to church commissions and legal authorities, a culture of denial and cover-up has prevented allegations from being fully investigated. A 1962 Vatican document instructed bishops to observe secrecy in sexual abuse cases and to address sexual abuse, or “solicitation,” as an internal church matter. German Cardinal Reinhard Marx recently even admitted that the Catholic Church had destroyed documents related to sexual abuse committed by priests.