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Can The Church Survive Pell's 'Catastrophic' Sex Abuse Conviction?

It is a "happy" day for abuse survivors, and the conviction of George Pell on child sex charges is hoped to lead to wholesale change at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

In December 2018, a Melbourne jury found Pell guilty of five charges -- one of sexually penetrating a child under the age of 16 and four of committing an indecent act.

"There's relief for sure, but I do believe people are happy," Steven Spaner, coordinator for advocacy group SNAP -- Survivors Networks of those Abused by Priests -- told 10 daily.

READ MORE: Cardinal George Pell Found Guilty Of Child Sexual Abuse

Other survivors have spoken of being "stunned" at the news, while a former priest said the verdict would be "catastrophic" and like a "tsunami" for the church.

Pell leaves court in Melbourne in May 2018 (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)

Pell's lawyers have already lodged an appeal against the conviction, but child abuse survivors and churchgoers are reeling from the impacts of the unprecedented sentencing.

READ MORE: The Cardinal's Legacy: Crime And Cover-Up

READ MORE: Australian Media No Longer Gagged, Details Of Pell Abuse Revealed

"Survivors are over the moon. What we’re hoping is this gives other survivors the strength they need to come forward," Steve Fisher, a child abuse survivor and spokesperson for advocacy group Beyond Abuse, told 10 daily.

"The decision sends a message to survivors that there's hope they will be believed."

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Dr Judy Courtin, a lawyer and advocate representing victims of institutional abuse, told 10 daily it was a "profoundly and extraordinarily meaningful" day.

"Today will represent, for a lot of people, some justice when they couldn't get it... there will be a vicarious sense of justice,"she said.

The condemnation of Pell was swift in the wake of the verdict. He was removed as a vice patron of the Richmond Football Club, his name will be scrubbed from a building and honour board at his former college in Ballarat, and there are already calls -- including several fast-growing online petitions -- for the cardinal to lose the Companion of the Order of Australia honour he was granted in 2005.

"I’m disgraced to be a Catholic today. I have not left the church but I want to see Pell excommunicated," an abuse survivor said outside court.

As one of the most senior Catholic officials in the world, Pell's conviction is expected to rock the church to its core.

"The brand is really trashed," former priest Terry Laidler told 10 News First.

"Given today's events, I just can't see the path to recovery. This is of world-shattering historic importance."

Reverend Professor Andrew Dutney, of the Adelaide College of Divinity and Flinders University -- and a former president of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia -- said the verdict had left people "gobsmacked" and expected it to further erode trust in institutions like churches.

"Sociologists have been mapping a trend of people’s disaffection with organised religion, people detaching themselves from denominational loyalties which used to be very tribal," he told 10 daily.

"What a situation like this presents is a further loosening of ties... It would be foolish to think it will not further erode people's trust in religious institutions."

Pell with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2015 (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Dutney said he expected Pell's conviction would place further pressure on the church to speed up and bolster its responses to child abuse.

A conference on sex abuse was held in Vatican City just last week, with Pope Francis calling such action "abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth" -- but attracted criticism from survivors for failing to commit to firm action.

"This may put pressure on the Vatican to follow through on some noise they were making about seeking justice for survivors and excluding perpetrators," Dutney said.

Courtin did not agree, however, claiming "the church isn't going to change."

"This summit will come to nothing," she said.

"But hopefully the verdict will give people the courage to speak up. We need to make criminals and those who have concealed crimes, we have to make them accountable to civil and criminal processes."

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Dr Chris Geraghty, a former judge and Catholic priest, told The Project that it would be a "long and hard road" to rebuild faith in the church after the "tsunami" of the Pell verdict, suggesting radical change.

"It can sack a whole lot of these bishops. Just sack them," he said.

"Get new blood in. Embrace women into the ministry."

Geraghty suggested wholesale change to the bedrock principle of celibacy may be needed.

"They've just got to stop all of that. You cannot insist on 12 and 16-year-olds going to seminary and pledging their life of celibacy when they've never lived a life and don't know what they're talking about," he said.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said in a statement Pell's conviction "shocked" members of the faith worldwide.

"The same legal system that delivered the verdict will consider the appeal that the Cardinal’s legal team has lodged. Our hope, at all times, is that through this process, justice will be served," he said.

Pell's lawyers said in a statement that he "always maintained his innocence and continues to do so."

Spaner, of SNAP, said he hoped Pell's conviction would convince the church to overhaul its methods of investigating abuse complaints, and voiced his belief that Pell should be removed from the church.

"To those survivors who are still out there, you should report to police. The church is not equipped to do its own investigations," he said.

"If Pell isn't instantly defrocked and immediately removed, if he isn't imprisoned, that's a tragedy."

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