Would Cardinal George Pell be in prison if he committed the same crimes in a different country?

Cardinal George pell

Cardinal George Pell is appealing his conviction for sexually abusing children to the High Court of Australia. Cardinal Pell is the most senior Catholic, and only bishop, to be sentenced for child sex offences. Historically, it has been notoriously difficult to prosecute members of the Clergy. To this day, he would not have been prosecuted at all if he was alleged to have committed the same crimes in many other countries. 

In this article, we ask Joseph Correy, a leading criminal lawyer in defending child sex allegations, if countries outside of Australia would have prosecuted Cardinal Pell.

It is acknowledged that Cardinal Pell’s criminal conviction is on appeal and does not seek to give an opinion one way or the other as to his guilt or innocence.

United States

There are about 72 million Catholics in the United States of America, which represents almost 25% of the population.

Statue of Liberty, United States of America

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the John Jay Report, which revealed more than 11,000 allegations made against 4,392 priests in the USA. This number constituted approximately 4% of the priests who had served during the period of 1950 to 2002. The number of allegations against priests has increased steadily since the release of the report.

Most priests in the USA who have allegations of child sexual abuse made against them are not prosecuted because ‘statutes of limitations’ prevent criminal prosecutions for historical child sex offences.

Cardinal Pell would not have been prosecuted if he was alleged to have committed the same child sex offences in many American states because of their statutes of limitations,” Mr Correy said.

Statutes of limitations are time limits set by law for filing criminal charges. Because allegations of child sex offences are often not reported until many years later, by the time a complaint is made, the police have no power to prosecute”.

Joseph Correy

Mr Correy’s view is reflected in states like Pennsylvania, where over 300 priests have been implicated in the sex abuse of more than 1,000 children. Almost every allegation of abuse has been found too old prosecute because of the state’s statute of limitations.

In recent times, many American states have removed statutes of limitations in relation to child sex offences. Once a statute of limitation is removed, allegations that are not yet statute barred can be prosecuted immediately or in the future. The removal of statutes of limitations, however, does not assist survivors of child sexual abuse where allegations are already statute barred. This is because it is unconstitutional for states to retroactively change laws to prosecute crimes.

Mr Correy gave the following example of who is assisted by the removal of statutes of limitations and who isn’t. 

Assume that ‘Michael’ sexually molests a teenager named ‘Peter’. Peter doesn’t report what happened for many years. By the time he tells the police about the molestation, the statute of limitations for the police to prosecute the allegation has expired. In this scenario, it will not assist Peter if the law is later changed to remove the statute of limitations because his allegation is already statute barred and the new law won’t apply retroactively to his case,” Mr Correy explained.

An example of where changes to the law would assist a survivor of child abuse is where ‘John’ sexually molests a teenager named ‘Paul’. Paul doesn’t report what happened to police and his allegation is due to become statute barred in 1 years’ time. The state removes the statute of limitations before that 1 year expires. The change to the law would mean that Paul would have unlimited time to report John to the police, and the police could bring charges against John whenever he does so, because there would no longer be a time limit on when Paul needed to make the allegation by”.


There are about four million Catholics in Ireland, which represents about 80% of the Irish population.

Historically, Ireland relied on the Catholic Church to run schools, orphanages and other social service organisations for decades.

Judge-led investigations have produced four reports since 2005 into the Catholic Church’s record in dealing with child sexual abuse allegations. The findings of these reports have been instrumental in ending the Catholic Church’s absolute influence in Irish society and politics.

The Library of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Ireland’s national police force have examined the various report to see if they provided new evidence for prosecuting clerics for child sexual abuse offences.

In August 2018, a list was published which revealed that over 1,300 Catholic clergy in Ireland had been accused of sexual abuse, with 82 of them being convicted. There are more prosecutions underway.

Cardinal Pell almost certainly would have been prosecuted if he was alleged to have committed the same child sex offences in Ireland,” Mr Correy said.

In the not too distant past, the government would have acceded to the Catholic Church and not prosecuted Cardinal Pell, but those days are well and truly passed.”

Joseph Correy

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the highest-ranked official of the Catholic Church in Ireland, has been scathing of Irish Catholic Church members for concealing decades of child abuse.

In a joint statement following, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, bishops said that reports revealing child sexual abuse represent a “disturbing indictment of a culture that was prevalent in the Catholic Church in Ireland for far too long. Heinous crimes were perpetrated against the most innocent and vulnerable, and vile acts with life-lasting effects were carried out under the guise of the mission of Jesus Christ. This abuse represents a serious betrayal of the trust which was placed in the church.”



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