Cardinal George Pell, the most senior cleric ever charged with child sex abuse, has been found guilty in an Australian court of sexually assaulting two choirboys, in a major blow to the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership after a year of worldwide revelations of abuse and cover-up.
A jury unanimously found Pell guilty on one count of sexual abuse and four counts of indecent assault against two boys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in late 1996.
Pell, now aged 77, was accused of cornering the boys – then aged 12 and 13 – in a small room at the back of the cathedral after he caught them drinking the sacramental wine following Sunday mass. He then forced them to perform a sex act on him.
The jury also found Pell guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in a corridor more than a month later.
The cleric, who remained free on bail throughout the proceedings, denied all the charges and an initial trial ended with a hung jury in September. He was convicted on retrial on December 11.
A wide-ranging suppression order from the judge had prevented the media from reporting even the existence of court proceedings and the ensuing trials since May.
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But the order was lifted on Tuesday when prosecutors withdrew plans for a second trial on allegations from the 1970s.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, who has been following the trial, said the conviction was “highly significant” given Pell’s position in the church. The cardinal was Archbishop of Sydney and Archbishop of Melbourne before he moved to the Vatican where he became the top financial adviser to Pope Francis in 2014.
Pell, who has been free on bail, faces as many as 50 years in prison for the offences with sentencing due to begin on Wednesday when he is expected to be remanded in custody.
“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The statement said that numerous allegations and other charges against Pell had already been withdrawn or discharged.
The announcement of Pell’s conviction comes in the same month that the Vatican announced Francis had approved the expulsion from the priesthood of a former high-ranking cardinal in the United States, and days after he concluded a first-ever summit of Catholic leaders on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children.
Along with Ireland and the US, Australia has been devastated by the effect of clerical abuse, with a Royal Commission enquiry finding that 4,444 people reported they had been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across the country between 1980 and 2015.
Pell’s own hometown of Ballarat, about 90 minutes west of Melbourne, had such a high incidence of abuse that the city warranted its own case study in the Royal Commission report. About one in five Australians are Catholic.
Until the verdict, Pell’s lawyers had appeared confident that they had established a reasonable doubt in the minds of the 12-member jury.
When the chairman announced the first guilty verdict, Pell’s hands slipped from the arm rests of the chair where he sat in the dock at the back of the courtroom. His head bowed after the second verdict, but he restored his composure for the final verdicts.
The now 34-year-old survivor of the attack told the court that he had not really understood what was happening when Pell abused him, and that he feared making such accusations against a powerful church figure would cost him his place in the choir and his scholarship to a prestigious school.
In a statement on Tuesday, he said that the case had been stressful and was not over yet.
“Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle,” the statement said, according to AFP news agency. “Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life,
“At some point we realise that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.”
The second victim died of a heroin overdose in 2014.
|Pope Francis during the last day of a four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis on February 24. [Vatican media/Handout via Reuters]|
Pell did not testify at the trial, but more than 20 witnesses, including clerics, choristers and altar servers, gave evidence.
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None recalled ever seeing the complainant and the other victim break from a procession of choristers, altar servers and clerics to go to the back room.
The complainant testified that he and his friend had run from the procession and back into the cathedral through a side door to, in the words of the prosecutor, “have some fun.”
Others told the jury that Pell’s archbishop robes were too heavy and cumbersome for him to have abused the boys in the way they had described.
Pell’s conviction is likely to further tarnish Pope Francis since he appointed the Australian cardinal to the Vatican’s economy ministry even though the allegations against him were already known.
Francis removed Pell from his informal cabinet in October. The cardinal’s five-year term in the Vatican expires this year and is not expected to be renewed.