Cardinal George Pell, once the third most powerful man in the Vatican and Australia’s most senior Catholic, has been found guilty of child sexual abuse after a trial in Melbourne. He's due to be sentenced next week, and will almost certainly face jail time.
A jury delivered the unanimous verdict on 11 December in Melbourne’s county court, but the result was subject to a suppression order and could not be reported until today.
Pell, who is on leave from his role in Rome as Vatican treasurer, was found guilty of sexually penetrating a child under the age of 16 as well as four charges of an indecent act with a child under the age of 16.
The offences occurred in December 1996 and early 1997 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, months after Pell was inaugurated as archbishop of Melbourne.
The suppression order covering the case was lifted by county court chief judge Peter Kidd this morning. Pell is due to be sentenced next week but may be taken into custody at a plea hearing tomorrow, having been out on bail since the verdict and recovering from knee surgery.
Pope Francis has yet to publicly react.
Pell walked from the Melbourne courtroom to a waiting car surrounded by a phalanx of police and press. He was jeered by survivors of sexual abuse who had gathered outside.
“You’re going to burn in hell. Burn in hell, Pell,” one man yelled.
Before returning to Australia to face the charges, Pell was for three years prefect of the secretariat for the economy of the Holy See, making him one of the most senior Catholics in the world.
He was one of Francis’s most trusted advisers, and was handpicked to oversee the Vatican’s complex finances and root out corruption.
On the day of the dramatic verdict, after a four-and-a-half-week trial, Pell stood in the dock showing no reaction and staring straight ahead. The room was silent as the foreman told the court that the jury had found the cardinal guilty on all charges.
Pell’s defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, when asked by journalists if he would appeal, responded: “Absolutely.”
Pell pleaded not guilty from the beginning. He was interviewed by a Victorian detective, Christopher Reed, in Rome in October 2016, and the video of that interview was played to the court. In that interview Pell described the allegations as “a load of garbage and falsehood”.
When Reed said the attacks were alleged to have occurred after Sunday mass, Pell responded: “That’s good for me as it makes it even more fantastically impossible.”
The jury took less than four days to reach their unanimous verdict.
Pell had already been investigated by the Church in 2002 over an accusation that he sexually abused a 12-year-old altar boy at a youth camp in 1961 while a seminarian. Pell denied the allegations. The verdict of the retired judge at the time was that the claims were not proven but not dismissed.
One of the complainants at the centre of the case, who cannot be named, asked for privacy in the wake of the suppression order being lifted, saying he was “a regular guy working to support and protect my family as best I can.”
“Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle,” he said in a statement.
“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. I would like to thank my family near and far for their support of me, and of each other.”
The jury found that in the second half of December 1996, while he was archbishop of Melbourne, Pell walked in on two 13-year-old choirboys after a Sunday solemn mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral and sexually assaulted them.
The complainant, who is now aged 35, said he and the other choirboy had separated from the choir procession as it exited the church building. The prosecution’s case hinged on his evidence, as the other victim died in 2014 after a heroin overdose.
After leaving the procession, the complainant said, he and the other boy sneaked back into the church corridors and entered the priest’s sacristy, a place they knew they should not be.
There they found some sacramental wine and began to drink. The complainant alleged that Pell had walked in on them and told them something to the effect that they were in trouble.
Pell manoeuvred his robes to expose his penis. He stepped forward, grabbed the other boy by the back of his head, and forced the boy’s head on to his penis, the complainant told the court.
Pell then did the same thing to the complainant, orally raping him. Once he had finished, he ordered the complainant to remove his pants, before fondling the complainant’s penis and masturbating himself.
The complainant alleged that either later that year in 1996, or in early 1997, Pell attacked him again. He said he was walking down a hallway to the choristers’ change room, again after singing at Sunday solemn mass at the cathedral, when Pell allegedly pushed him against the wall and squeezed his genitals hard through his choir robes, before walking off.
The complainant told the court that after the attacks he could not fathom what had happened to him and that he dealt with it by pushing it to the “darkest corners and recesses” of his mind.
How Cardinal Pell responded to cases of sexual assaults by clergy in the past
Pell has attracted criticism since the 1990s for the way he has responded to allegations of child sexual abuse while he was working in Australian Catholic institutions.
In 2014 he said the church was no more responsible for child abuse carried out by church figures than a trucking company would be if it employed a truck driver who picked up a female hitchhiker and raped her.
At Australia’s child sexual abuse royal commission, he described offending by his one-time friend, the priest Gerald Ridsdale, as a “sad story” that “wasn’t of much interest to me”. Ridsdale has been found guilty of offending against more than 60 children.
In France, a verdict is expected next week in the trial of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, who is accused with five others of helping to cover up alleged sexual abuse.