Cardinal George Pell, a top adviser to Pope Francis, was convicted of child sex abuse in December, it was revealed Tuesday. The former Vatican treasurer, Pell is the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted in the Church's far-reaching sex abuse scandal.
The 77-year-old was found guilty of abusing two 13-year-old choirboys inside St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in 1996. He was convicted in a secret trial by an Australian court, held over six weeks in November and December.
The conviction was only made public Tuesday after prosecutors said they would not pursue a second trial over allegations that Pell abused boys in the 1970s, with detectives citing insufficient evidence.
Pell will be sentenced in March and could face up to 50 years in jail. However, the cleric, who pleaded not guilty to the charges, said he would appeal the decision.
The Vatican, which held a historic child abuse summit in Rome on Sunday, said the news of the conviction was “painful” but it would await the outcome of the appeal before taking action.
Pope Francis quietly removed Pell from his inner circle of advisers — known as the Circle of Nina — the day after he was found guilty, citing “reasons of advancing age.” His term as Vatican treasurer expired on Sunday.
What is Pell accused of?
Pell was unanimously convicted by the jury after three hours of deliberation of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.
The prosecution's case hinged on the testimony of one of the victims, who gave detailed evidence of the incident that happened in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The second victim later died of a drug overdose.
The victim, who cannot be identified under Australian law, said that he and one other boy snuck away from the procession after mass and went into a back room to drink altar wine.
Cardinal Pell appeared in the doorway and demanded to know what they were doing. He told the boys they were in trouble and forced one of them to perform oral sex on him. He told the other boy to take off his pants and touched the boy's genitals while masturbating.
Pell’s victim said in a statement Tuesday that he had struggled with “shame, loneliness [and] depression” after the abuse.
What did Pell say?
Pell didn’t take the stand in his own defense, but his lawyers argued that the accusations against him were an “embellishment on a fantasy.”
The jury did see a video of an interview police conducted with Pell in Rome in 2016 in which he labeled the charges against him a “deranged falsehood.”
“What a load of absolute and disgraceful rubbish. Completely false. Madness," he told detectives.
Following a rapid rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church, Pell’s career became dogged first by claims he covered up sexual abuse by priests in Australia, and later by accusations that he'd perpetrated such acts himself.
A 2017 investigation into decades of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Australia revealed that 7 percent of all priests working in the country between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of abusing children.
What's the reaction been?
The pope confirmed Tuesday via his spokesperson that Pell has been forbidden from contact with minors until his appeals have concluded, adding that he has also been obliged to abstain from public ministry.
No other measures will be taken against Pell until his appeal proceedings are exhausted. The spokesman added that Pell has the “right to defend himself.”
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the conviction had “shocked many across Australia and around the world,” adding that it would continue to work to make the Church “a safe place for all.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the Sydney Morning Herald that he was “deeply shocked” at Pell’s crimes.
“I respect the fact that this case is under appeal, but it is the victims and their families I am thinking of today, and all who have suffered from sexual abuse by those they should have been able to trust but couldn’t,” he said.
Former PM Tony Abbott, who defended Pell as a “fine man” even after he was charged with abusing children, has yet to comment on the conviction.
Cover image: Cardinal George Pell arrives at County Court on February 26, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)