Pope holds Pell’s fate in his hands
POPE Francis himself will have the final say on whether George Pell should be defrocked, with the church leadership in Rome expected to make Pell only the second cardinal ever to be removed from the priesthood.
While the Vatican is officially awaiting the outcome of Pell's legal appeals, it quietly removed him from the C-9 Council of Cardinals advisory committee last October, and, three days ago, allowed his contract as Vatican treasurer to expire.
But the church still has one sanction up its sleeve - laicisation, colloquially known as "defrocking'' - which would see him banned from ever practising as a priest.
He would lose all his church titles, would not be allowed to celebrate the sacrament, present himself as a priest or wear his clerical robes. The church would no longer he required to care for him in his old age. He would be banned from ordaining other priests, or working in a seminary.
While more than 800 Catholic priests have been defrocked across the globe in the past 15 years, including several bishops, it is virtually unheard of for such a senior figure to be expelled from the church.
However, the defrocking a week ago of the 88-year-old Theodore E. McCarrick, a former cardinal and Archbishop of Washington who sexually abused children and adults, appears to have set a precedent.
Vatican observers say this is likely to be used against Pell if his guilty verdict stands after appeal.
McCarrick was the first American cardinal defrocked and the first cardinal worldwide to face the action as a result of sexual abuse, which he carried out over decades.
Only the Vatican, using Canon Law, can hand down a laicisation order, and with Pell once the third-highest ranking official in the Vatican, observers say Pope Francis will have the final sign-off on the decision.
Laicisation, or being "dismissed from the clerical state'' is the most extreme punishment the church can mete out and is often devastating for people who have spent their entire lives within the church.
A leading academic expert in canon law, Professor Kurt Martens, from Catholic University of America in Washington, told New York Times the defrocking of McCarrick was "almost revolutionary."
"Bishops and former cardinals are no longer immune to punishment," Professor Martens told the Times.
"The reverence that was shown in the past to bishops no longer applies."