MELBOURNE — 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 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 planned second trial dealing with separate allegations against Pell dating from the 1970s.
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The statement noted that numerous allegations and other charges against Pell had already been withdrawn or discharged.
‘Rot in hell’
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 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.
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 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. — AFP