Australian Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis’ closest advisors, has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two choirboys, becoming the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex crimes.
An Australian jury unanimously found Pell guilty in December on one count of sexual abuse and four counts of indecent assault against two boys at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s.
Pell, now aged 77, was accused of cornering the boys, then aged 12 and 13 in the cathedral’s sacristy following Sunday mass and forcing them to perform a sex act on him.
The cleric, who has remained free on bail, denied all the charges and an initial trial ended with a hung jury in September, but he was convicted on retrial on December 11.
A pre-sentencing hearing is scheduled for today, when Pell is expected to be remanded in custody. He faces a maximum 25 years in prison if his appeal is rejected, prosecutors have said.
Pell sat impassively during Tuesday’s court hearing, wearing a beige sport coat over a dark shirt and clerical collar.
His conviction is another hammer blow to the Church, which has struggled to convince the world it is serious about tackling widespread child abuse and paedophilia. Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to manage the Vatican finances in 2014 and was one of the pontiff’s closest advisors as a member of the so-called C9 council until being dropped from that body the day after his December 11 conviction.
A wide-ranging suppression order from the presiding judge had prevented the media from reporting even the existence of court proceedings and the ensuing trials since May. The order was lifted during a court hearing yesterday when prosecutors decided against proceeding with a second trial for separate allegations against Pell dating from the 1970s.
Advocacy group bishopaccountability.org said Pell was the “first bishop convicted of physical sex crimes involving minors”. “Pell’s conviction is groundbreaking,” its co-director Anne Barrett Doyle said.
The Vatican said the verdict was “painful news” and that it had the “utmost respect” for the Australian justice system.
“It is painful news that, we are well aware, has shocked many people, not just in Australia,” the Vatican statement said, adding that it would await the outcome of the appeal process.
“Cardinal George Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so,” said a statement issued by his lawyers. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “deeply shocked” by Pell’s conviction and that the justice system had shown “no Australian is above the law”.
Of the two choirboys that Pell was found to have assaulted, one died in 2014 of a drug overdose that his family blamed on the trauma he suffered.
The second victim said in a statement issued by his lawyer yesterday that the ongoing legal process was stressful and “not over yet”.