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It's time to reform the Catholic Church

March 13, 2019

Pope Francis once made George Pell one of the Vatican's most powerful men. Now, the cardinal is headed to prison for sexual abuse. It is time for the Catholic Church to reform itself, says DW's Christoph Strack.

Pope Francis at the Vatican
Image: AP

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican's third-highest ranking official who once served as the pope's finance chief, was sentenced to six years behind bars on Wednesday for child sex abuse. The Australian is the most senior Catholic to ever be convicted of such crimes. Pell's lawyers have appealed the decision but for now Pell will go straight to jail, giving him time to think about his deeds — just like his victims are forced to come to terms with what Pell once did to them. Indeed, for a very long time the Catholic Church refused to acknowledge cases of sexual abuse even existed.

Read moreCatholic Church 'cover-ups must stop!'

The trial against Pell has shocked and divided Australia's Catholic Church, and society at large. Some argue his sentencing was much overdue, while others believe Pell is being used as a scapegoat to settle a score with the church. Some figures in Rome, meanwhile, have dismissed the accusations against Pell as "absolutely unbelievable," which smacks of cynicism and arrogance — an attitude that has characterized the Catholic Church for decades. Indeed, accusations of sexual abuse against Pell began surfacing many years ago but were not taken seriously.

'Callous indifference'

Chief Judge Peter Kidd said Pell acted with "callous indifference to the victims' distress" and had been "breathtakingly arrogant." The conviction illustrates just how big of a sexual abuse scandal the church really faces.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack covers religious affairs for DWImage: DW/B. Geilert

Indeed, the college of cardinals currently counts 122 men who are eligible to elect a new pope and thus leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, when the time comes. Pell is one of them. And so is the archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, who was recently sentenced to six months' probation for failing to report allegations of assault. Fortunately, Cardinal Barbarin wants to resign from his position. Meanwhile, the Vatican has launched a canonical trial against Pell, yet will wait until his civil trial ends before reaching a decision.

Pope John Paul II made Pell an archbishop and a cardinal. Pope Benedict XVI later gave him a say in important decision-making processes in Rome, and in 2014 Pope Francis named him the Vatican treasurer. Pell's rise to power makes clear a fundamental problem with the all-male Catholic Church: outside criticism is ignored. That explains why some figures in Rome still dismiss the court case against Pell in Australia.

Read moreSex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church

Pell was sentenced on the sixth anniversary of the election of Francis, who has revolutionized and revitalized the Catholic Church in some respects. But with this gargantuan sexual abuse scandal at his hands, Francis must realize that the credibility of his institution has been ruined. This scandal is even more serious than the lack of women in the Catholic Church, its archaic principle of celibacy or outdated ideas of sexual morality. Pious people are losing faith in and turning their backs on the Catholic Church, which now faces an existential crisis. 

Will this crisis lead to reforms?

Church representatives have always responded to demands for reform by paying lip service to the need for change. But maybe and hopefully, after 150 years of clerical hubris, these sexual abuse scandals are finally proving to be the impetus needed for real reforms. This is not guaranteed of course, but hope springs eternal.

Read moreNuns fight sexual abuse in India's Catholic Church

Those convicted of crimes deserve to spend time in jail. After all, not even priests and bishops seriously believe in hell anymore. Sure, a regular jail is probably far more pleasant than the netherworld — but it's still just punishment.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C