Robert Richter has apologised for his “terrible choice of phrase” in describing George Pell’s sexual abuse of a 13-year-old choirboy as “vanilla sexual penetration”.
The queen’s counsel has been widely criticised for the remark, which came during a plea hearing for the cardinal who is now behind bars awaiting sentence for orally raping the boy, and molesting him and another 13-year-old after a Sunday mass in 1996.
Richter was attempting to note there were no aggravating features to Pell’s offending, at a time when he was newly installed as archbishop of Melbourne at St Patrick’s cathedral.
“This is no more than a plain, vanilla sexual penetration case where a child is not volunteering or actively participating,” he said.
But on Thursday he issued an apology after a “sleepless night reflecting”.
“In seeking to mitigate sentence I used a wholly inappropriate phrase for which I apologise profusely to all who interpreted it in a way it was never intended: it was in no way meant to belittle or minimise the suffering and hurt of victims of sex abuse, and in retrospect I can see why it caused great offence to many,” he wrote in a statement.
“I hope my apology is accepted as sincerely as it is meant and I will never repeat such carelessness in my choice of words which might offend.”
The chief judge Peter Kidd made it clear in court that he was unimpressed by Richter’s remark. “It must be clear by now I am struggling with that,” Kidd said. He described the five charges a jury convicted Pell of in December as brutal and callous.
Richter’s comments drew widespread condemnation, including from the Victoria police chief commissioner, Graham Ashton, who said officers “certainly don’t treat them as plain vanilla offences”.
“It’s probably a question you’d have to ask a victim of any sexual offending, not specifically talking about this case, but more generally whether they find that term offensive and I’m pretty sure I know what answer you’d get,” Ashton told 3AW radio on Thursday.
Kidd will sentence Pell on 13 March. Each of the charges carries a 10-year maximum sentence.