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Top Vatican cleric Cardinal George Pell convicted of child sex crimes

The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up.

Monday 25 February, 2019
Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday, February 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up.
Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday, February 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up. Foto:AP/Andy Brownbill

Australian Cardinal George Pell, who helped elect popes and ran the Vatican's finances, has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two choirboys, becoming the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex crimes.

An Australian court found Pell guilty by a trial jury on one count of sexual abuse and four counts of indecent assault of two boys at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s.

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, now aged 77, was accused of cornering the boys – then aged 12 and 13 – in the cathedral's sacristy 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 gag order from the presiding judge had prevented the media from reporting even the existence of court proceedings and the ensuing trials since May.

The suppression 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.

Pell has steadfastly denied all the allegations against him and has lodged an appeal.

Unanimous verdicts

Pell, Pope Francis' top financial adviser and the Vatican's economy minister, bowed his head but then regained his composure as the 12-member jury delivered unanimous verdicts in the Victoria state County Court on December 11 after more than two days of deliberation.

Pell faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing that begins on Wednesday. He lodged an appeal last week against the convictions.

Details of the trial had been suppressed because until Tuesday, Pell had faced a second trial in April on charges that he indecently assaulted two boys aged 9 or 10, and 11 or 12, as a young priest in the late 1970s in a public pool in his hometown of Ballarat.

Prosecutor Fran Dalziel told the court on Tuesday that the Ballarat charges had been dropped and asked for the suppression order to be lifted.

"This is not a special case," Dalziel said.

Pell's lawyer Robert Richter initially wanted details suppressed until his appeal was heard, but later withdraw the application.

'Burn in hell'

Pell was surrounded by a crush of cameras and members of the public as he was ushered from the courthouse to a waiting car. "You're a monster!" one man shouted. "You're going to burn in hell, you freak!"

"Are you sorry?" one woman shouted. Pell did not respond.

His lawyer Paul Galbally said Pell continued to maintain his innocence.

"Although the cardinal originally faced allegations from a number of complainants, all of those complaints and allegations save for the matters that are subject to the appeal have all been either withdrawn or discontinued," Galbally told reporters outside.

Pell has initially been charged with more than 20 charges of sexual abuse against various complainants.

The revelations came in the same month that the Vatican announced Francis approved the expulsion from the priesthood for a former high-ranking US cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, for sexual abuse of minors and adults.

The convictions were also confirmed days after Francis concluded his extraordinary summit of Catholic leaders summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests.

'Vile'

The jury convicted Pell of abusing two 13-year-old boys whom he had caught swigging sacramental wine in a rear room of Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral in late 1996, as hundreds of worshippers were streaming out of Sunday services.

Pell, now 77 but 55 at the time, had just been named the most senior Catholic in Australia's second-largest city, Melbourne.

The jury also found Pell guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in a corridor more than a month later.

Pell had maintained his innocence throughout, describing the accusations as "vile and disgusting conduct" that went against everything he believed in.

Richter, his lawyer, had told the jury that only a "mad man" would take the risk of abusing boys in such a public place. He said it was "laughable" that Pell would have been able to expose his penis and force the victim to take it in his mouth, given the cumbersome robes he was wearing.

Both he and Chief Judge Peter Kidd urged the jury of eight men and four women not to punish Pell for all the failings of the Catholic Church, which in Australia have been staggering.

"You must not scapegoat Cardinal Pell," Kidd told the jury.

Along with Ireland and the United States, Australia has been devastated by the impact of the clerical abuse scandal, with a Royal Commission inquiry finding that 4,444 people reported they had been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia between 1980 and 2015.

Pell's own hometown of Ballarat had such a high incidence of abuse — and, survivors say, a correlated higher-than-average incidence of suicide — that the city warranted its own case study in the Royal Commission report.

Reckoning

As a result, Pell's trial amounted to something of a reckoning for survivors, with the brash and towering cardinal becoming the poster child for all that went wrong with the way the Catholic Church handled the scandal.

The conviction capped a year that had been so dominated by revelations of high-ranking sex abuse and cover-up that analysts openly speak of a crisis unparalleled since the Reformation. In addition to Pell, the allegations against McCarrick of groping a minor in the 1970s and of sleeping with adult seminarians became public.

As a result of the scandal, Francis' approval ratings have tanked in the United States, and his standing with conservative Catholics around the world — already on shaky ground over his outreach to divorcees — has plunged.

Up until the verdict, Pell's lawyers had appeared confident that they had established a reasonable doubt and had expected quick verdicts of not guilty.

When the jury chairman delivered 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.

Pell, who walked to and from court throughout his month-long trial with a crutch under his right arm, was released on bail to undergo surgical knee replacements in Sydney on December 14. Prosecutor Mark Gibson did not oppose bail, saying the surgery would be more easily managed outside the prison system.

Four offences

The first four offences occurred at the first or second Solemn Mass that Archbishop Pell celebrated as leader of the magnificent blue-stone century-old cathedral in the centre of Melbourne. Pell was wearing his full robes — though not his staff or pointed bishops' hat — at the time.

The now 34-year-old survivor told the court that Pell orally raped him, then crouched and fondled the complainant's genitals while masturbating.

"I was young and I didn't really know what had happened to me. I didn't really know what it was, if it was normal," the complainant told the court.

The other victim died of a heroin overdose in 2014 without ever complaining of the abuse, and even denying to his suspicious mother that he had been molested while he was part of the choir.

Neither boy can now be identified, because it is illegal to name victims of sexual assault in Victoria.

Pell was initially charged with orally raping the second boy. But that charge was downgraded to indecent assault when the complainant testified that from his vantage point he couldn't see Pell's penis enter the second boy's mouth.

More than a month later, the complainant testified that Pell pushed him against a cathedral corridor wall after a Mass and squeezed the boy's genitals painfully before walking away in silence.

"Pell was in robes and I was in robes. He squeezed and kept walking," the complainant told the jurors. "I didn't tell anyone at the time because I didn't want to jeopardise anything. I didn't want to rock the boat with my family, my schooling, my life."

Fear

The complainant testified that he feared that making such accusations against a powerful Church man would cost him his place in the choir and with it his scholarship to prestigious St. Kevin's College.

Pell pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of willfully committing an indecent act with or in the presence of a child under 16 in late 1996 and early 1997.

He did not testify at his trial. But the jury saw a video recording of an interview he gave Australian detectives in Rome in 2016 in which he stridently denied the allegations.

Pell grimaced, appearing incredulous and distressed, waved his arms over his head and muttered to himself as the detectives detailed the accusations that his victim had levelled against him a year earlier.

"The allegations involve vile and disgusting conduct contrary to everything I hold dear and contrary to the explicit teachings of the Church which I have spent my life representing," Pell told police.

Richter told the jury that the prosecution case compounded a series of improbabilities and impossibilities.

He told the jury that Pell could not have "parted" his robes as the complainant had described.

The jury was handed the actual cumbersome robes Pell wore as archbishop. Over his regular clothes, Pell would wear a full-length white robe called an alb that was tied around his waist with a rope-like cincture. Over that, he would drape a 3-metre (10-foot) band of cloth called a stole around his neck. The outermost garment was the long poncho-like chasuble.

'Have some fun'

More than 20 witnesses, including clerics, choristers and altar servers, testified during the trial. 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, as Gibson, the prosecutor, said, "have some fun."

Monsignor Charles Portelli, who was the cathedral's master of ceremonies in the 1990s, testified that he was always with Pell after Mass to help him disrobe in the sacristy.

The defence argued that Pell's usual practice was to linger at the cathedral front steps talking to members of the congregation after Mass. But Gibson said there was evidence that Pell didn't always chat outside and had the opportunity to commit the crimes.

The lifting of the gag order comes after Francis charted a new course for the Catholic Church to confront clergy sexual abuse and cover-up, a scandal that has consumed his papacy and threatens the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy at large.

Opening a first-ever Vatican summit on preventing abuse, Francis warned 190 bishops and religious superiors last week that their flocks were demanding concrete action, not just words, to punish predator priests and keep children safe. He offered them 21 proposals to consider going forward, some of them obvious and easy to adopt, others requiring new laws.

But Francis went into the meeting even more weakened and discredited after one of his top advisers was convicted of the very crime he has now decided is worth fighting on a universal scale.

Pell's downfall will invariably tarnish the pope, since Francis appointed Pell economy minister in 2014 even though some of the allegations against him were known at the time.

In October, Francis finally cut Pell loose, removing him as a member of his informal cabinet. Pell technically remains prefect of the Vatican's economy ministry, but his five-year term expires this year and is not expected to be renewed.

A pre-sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, when Pell is expected to be remanded in custody.

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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