'Think of the victims': Priest speaks out on Pell conviction
HE SAW him from a distance - long before Cardinal George Pell faced prison, before time caught up with the convicted paedophile priest.
Father Paul Kelly would watch Cardinal Pell as he walked the grounds at the Cathedral of St Stephen in Brisbane when he would come to functions.
He never had a conversation with Pell, never got very close - but much closer than most Australians have ever been to Australia's top-ranking Catholic.
Fr Kelly, who once served as the priest at Maryborough's St Mary's Catholic Church, has never shied away from giving his opinion.
While Catholic priests currently serving in Hervey Bay and Maryborough declined to comment on Pell's conviction, Fr Kelly has chosen to speak out.
Now an assistant priest at Surfers Paradise Catholic Parish, he says worshippers have been talking about Pell and about the shock of learning about his conviction on five charges of child sexual assault.
"We have people indicating that this is very distressing for them, not knowing what to make of it," Fr Kelly said.
"It's a shock for us all. It's not something we had imagined."
A student of law before he became a priest, Fr Kelly admits he was surprised by Pell's conviction, which is currently being appealed.
There were no corroborating witnesses to the offences, which happened in December 1996, and it was alleged to have happened after a Sunday solemn mass.
Pell, then the archbishop of Melbourne, was found guilty of assaulting two 13-year-old choirboys after the service.
Fr Kelly said anyone who had ever been involved in a full church service would know how difficult it was to get near a bishop after the mass.
"They are never alone," he said.
"There are many people around them wanting to talk to them.
"It surprises me, the circumstances boggles my mind - but I wasn't there."
With an appeal already lodged against the conviction by Pell, Fr Kelly said it would be up to the courts to decide if the evidence did prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
But he said the case was proof that victims could go up against powerful people - even a high-ranking member of the Vatican, as Pell was, and have their voice heard.
"People are listened to and given an opening hearing," he said.
"Society is judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable."
The victims were the number one priority in the aftermath of sexual abuse, Fr Kelly said.
"It's so important to think of the victims, that's the first thing that comes to mind," he said.
"One's heart goes out to anyone who has been a victim of abuse."
Fr Kelly said in the past, the church had been accused of worrying too much about its own reputation rather than abuse survivors.
He said the challenge for the church was finding a way to be a source of healing, not more hurt.
Fr Kelly said the reputation of the church had been further damaged by Pell's conviction - but he noted that anyone looking to harm children would be foolish to become a priest, because the scrutiny was so great.
"Everyone must think we must all be predators," he said.
"Wherever you have inequalities of power, you can have abuse."
NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY
A Catholic priest fighting for the rights of the gay and lesbian community might sound unusual but Fr Kelly did just that.
When Wayne Ruks was beaten to death in the St Mary's churchyard in 2008, Fr Kelly was horrified by the crime - and by what would follow.
When the so-called "gay panic defence" was used by one of the killers, who said Mr Ruks had made an unwanted homosexual advance, Fr Kelly took it upon himself to speak out against the legal loophole, which allowed murder to be downgraded to manslaughter.
He started a petition on Change.org that quickly attracted 290,000 supporters and eventually Fr Kelly won his fight.
He stood by the side of Yvette D'Ath, Queenland's attorney general, when she announced the reform bill in 2016.