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Protecting the giants: why we need to stop believing that powerful men are incapable of abuse

The conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic figurehead in Australia and a trusted advisor to Pope Francis, for child sexual abuse has sent shockwaves across the globe. Solicitor in the abuse team, Catriona Rubens, discusses the public reaction to the conviction of Cardinal Pell. 

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Catriona is a human rights solicitor who works in the firm's abuse team.  You can follow Cat on twitter on @catrubens
Pell, who is on leave from his role as Vatican treasurer, was found guilty on 25 February 2019 of five charges of sexually assaulting two young boys in 1996 when he was the archbishop of Melbourne. 

Despite a unanimous verdict from the jury - and previous criticisms of Pell’s handling of alleged abuse by other church personnel in Australia - prominent media and political figures have rallied in their support of the Cardinal. 

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard described Pell as  “a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character” and said that the conviction “doesn’t alter my opinion of the Cardinal”. His sympathies were echoed by another former Prime Minister and long-time supporter of Pell, Tony Abbott, who described the verdict as “devastating…for the friends of Cardinal Pell”. Some Australian media outlets have called the case an “unprecedented miscarriage of justice”. 

In its statement following Pell’s conviction, the Vatican too declined to formally denounce Pell, preferring to wait for the outcome of the appeal process. By doing so, it lost an opportunity to acknowledge the painful testimony of survivors that confirms abuse occurred at the very highest levels of the Catholic Church. 

This, along with Pell’s connections in the upper echelons of Australian society and beyond, has allowed an alternative narrative to flourish: that such a well-respected and influential figure as Pell could never be capable of such crimes. 

It seems incredible that we are still asking the question ‘how could someone with so much to lose commit such horrific acts?’ Abusers like Pell have evaded justice for years precisely because of their powerful positions. Their victims are terrified by the thought of speaking out against someone so revered. High profile public figures flock to give character references in their defence. Religious followers refuse to accept that their moral authority could be so challenged.

Power provides thick armour for perpetrators of abuse to shroud themselves in. 

Such public denial of Pell’s crimes – on the basis of who he was and the position he held – reflects the prejudices many people still hold when it comes to accepting that child abuse really can, and does, occur in all layers of our society.  Whether they are well-connected politicians, ‘morally superior’ religious leaders, or adored celebrities, perpetrators of abuse will always use their own power and influence to suppress their victims’ testimony. If we are to truly try to eradicate child sexual abuse, we have to stop allowing their position to be a smokescreen for their crimes. 

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