MELBOURNE, February 26 (AFP)
Australian Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis’ closest advisers, 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 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 on Tuesday when prosecutors decided against proceeding with a second trial for separate allegations against Pell dating from the 1970s.
There was no immediate reaction from the Vatican but Pell maintained his innocence on Tuesday. “Cardinal George Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so,” said a statement issued by his lawyers, who added that they had lodged an appeal against the conviction.
The statement noted that numerous allegations and other charges against Pell had already been withdrawn or discharged.
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 Tuesday that the ongoing legal process was stressful and “not over yet”.
“Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle,” said the man, who has not been publicly identified. “At some point we realise that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.”
Outside the County Court of Victoria, supporters of other abuse survivors yelled “monster” and “rot in hell” as Pell, walking slowly with the aid of a cane, entered a car after the hearing concluded.
“It is a miracle. It is unbelievable,” one child sex abuse survivor who only gave his name as Michael told reporters outside the court, adding that he wanted to see the cleric excommunicated from the Church and sent to jail.
A pre-sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, 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 advisers as a member of the so-called C9 council until being dropped from that body the day after his December 11 conviction.
News of his conviction will be a serious setback as the pope pursues a campaign to show the church’s determination to fight sex abuse.
Just two days earlier, Pope Francis closed an historic Vatican summit on sexual abuse by priests by likening the abuse to “human sacrifice”.
“We are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth,” Francis said in closing remarks to the summit, vowing to deal with every case of abuse “with the utmost seriousness”.
But critics say the institution is still moving too slowly in dealing with a problem that is global in scale and, at a minimum, spans decades.
Pell’s case has caused consternation in Australia, where he had once been praised by luminaries from a prime minister down, and was a leading conservative voice on issues ranging from gay marriage to climate change.
For decades, Pell denied being an abuser or covering up sex abuse, but he did admit he “mucked up” in dealing with pedophile priests in the state of Victoria.
During his trial, defense lawyers ridiculed the charges against him, arguing that the cathedral sacristy was a hive of activity following Sunday mass and that it would have been impossible to assault choirboys in such circumstances.
Australia’s media has strongly protested the gag order imposed on the case, which forbade them from even mentioning the existence of the trial or the order itself.
Following Pell’s December conviction, some international media reported the verdict, while local newspapers published front-page stories informing readers that a prominent Australian had been found guilty of serious crimes, but they were not allowed to reveal what or who. Australian media said Tuesday that they subsequently received “show cause” letters from the court explaining why they should not face contempt charges for their reporting on the case.
Around one in five Australians are Catholic, roughly five million people.A five-year royal commission inquiry into child abuse said in a report issued last year that tens of thousands of children had been sexually abused in Australian churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools in a “national tragedy” over many generations.
Before Pell, the most high-profile case in Australia concerning sex abuse in the Church was the conviction earlier last year of the former archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, on charges of concealing crimes by a pedophile priest in the 1970s. Wilson successfully appealed that conviction in early December.