George Pell case enters unknown legal territory
The string of historical child sexual abuse charges laid against Cardinal George Pell has plunged the case into unknown legal territory.
Leading Australian extradition expert Professor Donald Rothwell has previously outlined three possible scenarios.
Rothwell said Pell could refuse to step outside the Vatican walls to avoid prosecution, as there is no extradition treaty with Australia. However, he believed that was highly unlikely.
He said Pell had so far cooperated with police, sought to engage in legal proceedings and vehemently denied any allegations of misconduct.
If the cardinal did not agree to return, Rothwell said, it would be difficult for Victoria Police to force him to do so.
Australia could appeal to Italy to make the extradition request on its behalf, he said. Under this scenario, clergy wanted on charges in Australia could be arrested by Italian authorities if they left the holy city.
Under another scenario, Pope Francis could order Pell to return to Australia. Under the church’s international code of canon law, the pope is the supreme legislator and is in charge of the church legally.
Francis has previously backed Pell, and endorsed him for his high-ranking role of Secretariat for the Economy, commonly described as the Vatican’s financial boss.
Traditionally, the decision to lay charges is based on whether it is ‘‘more likely than not’’ that they would result in a successful prosecution. In historic sex crime investigations, police must consider the severity of the allegations, the credibility of witnesses, potentially corroborating evidence, and a lack of forensic evidence.
There has been only one other known case where a senior Vatican official was charged with sexually abusing children.
Polish former archbishop Jozef Wesolowski would have been the first high-ranking church official to go on trial on paedophile charges, but he died in August 2015, aged 67, while awaiting trial.
Wesolowski had been placed under house arrest in September 2014 following allegations that he sexually abused boys while serving in the Dominican Republic.
The case sparked global controversy after it was reported that the Vatican had learned of the allegations and helped Wesolowski leave the country before he could be investigated, then invoked diplomatic immunity, protecting him from facing trial in the Dominican Republic.
Wesolowski lost his diplomatic immunity after he was defrocked in late 2014. The Vatican decided to try him at home but subsequently said he could face charges elsewhere after its case against him concluded. - Fairfax