Asia Pacific

Australian Cardinal George Pell becomes most senior Catholic priest to be convicted of child sex crimes

AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

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, it was announced Tuesday.

An Australian jury unanimously found Pell guilty on one count of sexual abuse and four counts of indecent assault against two choir boys at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s.

He was in December found guilty of the sexual assaults, but only on Tuesday was a wide-ranging suppression order thrown out, allowing media to report on the case.

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 in the retrial on Dec. 11.

Prosecutors decided against going ahead with a planned second trial dealing with separate allegations against Pell dating from the 1970s, resulting in the lifting of the wide-ranging suppression order that had been put in place by a judge in May that prevented the media from reporting even the existence of court proceedings.

There was no immediate reaction from the Vatican but Pell maintained his innocence 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The statement noted that numerous allegations and other charges against Pell had already been withdrawn or discharged.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 and the second 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. Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life,” said the man, who has not been publicly identified.

“At some point we realize 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 prison.

A pre-sentencing hearing was scheduled for Wednesday.

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 pedophilia.

Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to manage the Vatican finances in 2014, and has been one of the pontiff’s closest advisors.

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 minimum, spans decades.

Days after Pell was convicted in secret, the church announced he had been pulled off a panel of cardinals that make up the Pope’s cabinet and closest advisors.

But he has remained in his position as Vatican treasurer, effectively the church’s third-ranking official, although he has been on extended leave since his indictment.

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.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the same day that the Director of Public Prosecutions for Victoria had threatened to “lay criminal charges against dozens of journalists for contempt of court,” saying that even though Pell was never named in their stories, reports appeared soon after his conviction that identified the cardinal.

Around 1 in 5 Australians are Catholic, roughly 5 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.