Disgraced Australian Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison on Wednesday for the sexual abuse of two boys in 1996 in a Melbourne cathedral.
Pell – once the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis – is the highest-ranking Catholic Church official to be convicted of molesting children.
He faced a maximum sentence of 50 years in jail.
Chief Judge Peter Kidd told the Melbourne court Pell’s actions had a “profound impact” on the life of the boy who survived his abuse and likely had a similar impact on the other boy, who later died of a heroin overdose.
He accused Pell of “callous indifference” to the suffering of the boys, who have not been named. Pell’s face remained solemn as he listened to an hour-long statement.
Last December, the now 77-year-old was found guilty on five charges relating to the sexual assault of two boys at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. The media was unable to report on the conviction until February because of a suppression order.
“There are 7,000 clergy planet-wide that are under charges for abuse of children,” said John Lawrence, a protester outside the court who told Al Jazeera he was a victim of sexual abuse in the Church. “I think it’s time that after this case they face the consequences.”
Several of the Care Leavers Australiasia Network, most of whom are survivors of abuse, said the sentence was “not enough” but they were happy Pell was going to prison.
One described the relatively lenient sentence as “a joke”.
Angela Sdrinis, a Melbourne lawyer who has represented victims of abuse for more than two decades, said: “The conviction of George Pell shows victims of child sex abuse that no one is above the law”.
The judge started the proceedings by saying Pell was on trial and not the Catholic Church.
Pell is “entitled to the balanced and steady hand of justice”, Kidd told the court, lamenting a “lynch mob mentality” among some of the public.
“You are not to be made a scapegoat,” Kidd said.
Pell was Australia’s most senior Catholic as the Vatican’s treasurer – the third-highest ranking member of the Church – between February 2014 and when he was stood down by Pope Francis in August last year.
During his career, he upheld Catholic orthodoxy including vocal opposition to same-sex marriage and the ordination of women.
Pell’s case is the latest in a string of child sex abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church for decades.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has found that seven percent of Australian priests were accused of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2011. The average age of their victims was 11 for girls and 12 for boys. Pell testified to the inquiry on several occasions via video-stream from Rome, having refused to return to Australia because of “ill health”.
In February, the Vatican hosted an anti-child abuse conference in which Pope Francis declared an “all-out battle” against the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
“No abuse must ever be covered up, as was usual in the past,” he said.
Associate Professor Andrew Singleton of Deakin University said it was time for Church officials to look at changes to policies – such as celibacy for priests – but noted these are deeply enshrined in canon law.
“Because [Pell is] so close to the heart of the Vatican power, it is the time now for them to have a more structured approach,” Singleton said. “I think they should have a proper inquiry, like a truth and reconciliation commission, but I don’t think they will.”
Sdrinis told Al Jazeera many victims feel the institutions that shielded priest perpetrators have yet to properly deal with this issue.
“If the pope was serious about dealing with the child abuse issue, instead of more weasel words, his recent summit in Rome should have resulted in the removal of all those who allowed the abuse to occur over many decades and in many countries,” she said.