30 Jun 2017

Vatican stands by Cardinal over sexual abuse allegations

2:13 pm on 30 June 2017

By ABC Europe correspondent Lisa Millar

The Vatican is standing by Australian Cardinal George Pell over allegations of historic sexual abuse but, ABC News asks, how long will their support last?

Australian Cardinal George Pell makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office in Vatican City.

Australian Cardinal George Pell makes a statement at the Holy See Press Office in Vatican City. Photo: AFP

Shortly after 8.30am, George Pell walked into the Holy See press room and as the photographers snapped away, he pulled out a chair to sit down.

"Keep standing," the man next to him said, speaking softly but still picked up by the microphones.

It was Greg Burke - the head of the Holy See Press Office, giving instructions as if he were a lawyer acting for a client.

The 76-year-old Cardinal stayed standing.

The very fact Greg Burke - a former Fox News correspondent and now Papal spin doctor - was standing alongside him was significant in itself.

This was the Vatican saying very deliberately: We are standing by our man.

They could have added: For now.

There is no time limit to the support being offered by Pope Francis to his close adviser but be in no doubt, the support is there.

But how long can the Pope last without someone in the important position held by Mr Pell - the Vatican financial chief?

Chris Lamb from Catholic publication Tablet said it would be long enough to allow George Pell to clear his name. But what if the charges get past the committal stage and go to trial and Mr Pell is still in Melbourne in six months or a year's time?

The charging of Mr Pell has created two significant problems, the first being the absence of someone in a key Vatican role.

But the other was amplified by Guardian reporter Stephanie Kirchgaessner, who was the only voice to call out at the end of the Pell media appearance.

"What about the victims?" she asked.

Many of the reporters in the room, while believing Pell had delivered a forceful rejection of the allegations, questioned why neither his nor the Pope's statement made any reference to victims of historical cases of clerical sex abuse.

This Pope wants to be seen to be tough on allegations against those accused of committing abuse but he has critics who say he hasn't done enough. And this case will bring the focus back to what is or what isn't being done.

"Justice has to take its course and justice by the media or justice by rumour does not help," Pope Francis told reporters while flying back to Rome from Poland in July 2016.

"After the justice system speaks, I will speak," he said.

No matter how Mr Pell's case is resolved, the fact he is facing charges at all is the biggest crisis of Pope Francis's papacy and will test the Pope on just how true he is to his vow to be "zero tolerance" on this problem that has dogged the church for decades.


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