By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE, Feb 26 (Reuters) – Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty on five charges of child sexual abuse committed more than two decades ago against 13-year-old boys in Australia – the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted of child sex offences.
The guilty verdict was made public on Tuesday following the lifting of a court suppression order on Pell’s 2018 trial, after a second abuse case against him was dropped by the prosecution.
The downfall of the Vatican’s No.3 official brings to the heart of the papal administration a scandal over clerical abuse that has ravaged the Church’s credibility in the United States, Chile, Australia and elsewhere over the last three decades.
A jury in the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne found Pell guilty on Dec. 11 last year following a four-week trial.
He was convicted of five sexual offences committed against the 13-year-old choir boys 22 years earlier in the priests’ sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where Pell was archbishop. One of the two victims died in 2014.
Each of the five offences carries a maximum 10 years in jail. Pell’s lawyers have filed an appeal against the verdict on three grounds, which if successful could lead to a retrial.
“Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so,” Pell’s lawyer, Paul Galbally, said outside the court.
Pell, who remains on bail, left the court on Tuesday without speaking to reporters, who virtually mobbed him as he walked from the courthouse steps to a waiting car.
A child abuse survivor, who identified himself as Michael Advocate, as his real name is suppressed under Australian law, shouted to Pell: “Burn in Hell”.
Pell is due to return to court on Wednesday for the start of his sentencing hearing.
Pope Francis ended a conference on sexual abuse on Sunday, calling for an “all out battle” against a crime that should be “erased from the face of the earth”.
The Vatican said in December that Francis had removed Pell, 77, from his group of close advisers, without commenting on the trial.
The school that Pell attended as a boy, St Patrick’s College in Ballarat, about 120 km (75 miles) from Melbourne, said it would remove his name from a building that had been named in his honour.
It would revoke his status as an inducted “legend” of the school and strike a line through his name on a college honour board listing ordained former students the school said.
“The jury’s verdict demonstrates that Cardinal Pell’s behaviours have not met the standards we expect of those we honour as role models for the young men we educate,” the school’s headmaster, John Crowley, said in a statement.
PELL’S SEXUAL ABUSE
Pell, who took indefinite leave in 2016 from his role as economy minister for the Vatican to fight the charges, was not called to the stand in the trial.
Instead, the jury was shown in open court a video recording of an interview Australian police held with Pell in Rome in October 2016, in which he strenuously denied the allegations.
The jury was also shown a video recording of the surviving victim’s testimony behind closed doors. The testimony was later outlined in open court by the prosecution.
The man, who was a school boy when abused, described how Pell had exposed himself to the two boys, fondled their genitals and masturbated and forced one boy to perform a sex act on him.
Pell, a burly 1.9 metres (6 foot and 3 inches) tall, sat hunched in the dock at the back of the courtroom throughout his trial. He stared straight ahead when the jury foreman said “guilty” for the first time, then turned away.
As the next four guilty verdicts were delivered, the man described by his own lawyer as the “Darth Vader” of the Catholic Church sat with his head bowed.
“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,” Pell’s victim said on Tuesday in a statement through his solicitor Vivian Waller.
“The process has been stressful and it is not over yet. I need space and time to cope with the ongoing criminal process.”
WIDESPREAD ABUSE IN AUSTRALIA
Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and who attended the Vatican conference, said Pell’s conviction “has shocked many across Australia and around the world”.
“We pray for all those who have been abused and their loved ones, and we commit ourselves anew to doing everything possible to ensure that the Church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable,” he said in a statement.
In 2017, Australia ended a five-year government inquiry into child sex abuse in churches and other institutions, amid allegations worldwide that churches had protected paedophile priests by moving them from parish to parish.
The inquiry heard that 7 percent of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of child sex crimes, but few were pursued. The Catholic Church has paid A$276 million (US$198 million) in compensation to thousands of child abuse victims since 1980, the inquiry heard in 2017.
It also heard that nearly 1,100 people had filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over 35 years.
Two of Australia’s eight states and territories have since introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in the confessional, while the others have said they are considering their response.
The Catholic church in Australia has said it would oppose such a law.