Cardinal George Pell the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse, has been convicted in Australia of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic heirarchy’s credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up. Pell was Pope Francis’ top financial adviser until late last year and technically remains the Vatican’s economy minister.
Pell faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing that begins Wednesday. He lodged an appeal last week against the convictions.
The victim who testified at Pell’s trial said after the conviction was revealed that he has experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle.” In his statement, the man said it had taken him years to understand the impact the assault had on his life.
Lawyer Lisa Flynn said the father of the second victim, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31, is planning to sue the Church or Pell individually once the appeal is resolved.
The senior cleric bowed his head but then regained his composure as the 12-member jury delivered unanimous verdicts in the Victoria state County Court on Dec. 11 after more than two days of deliberation.
The court had until Tuesday forbidden publication of any details about the trial because Pell had faced a second trial in April on separate charges that he assaulted two other boys as a young priest in the late 1970s 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.
The lifting of the suppression order on Pell’s case was welcomed by SNAP, a U.S. support group for victim of clergy abuse.
“We hope that his conviction will not only bring healing to his victims in Australia but hope to survivors across the world who are yearning for accountability at the top levels of the church,” SNAP said in a statement. “We believe today’s conviction will make Australian children safer and parents and parishioners better informed about how to prevent sexual abuse.”
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.
Church forced to face abuse at all levels
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.
Along with Ireland and the U.S., 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.
The revelations about Pell came in the same month that the Vatican announced Francis had approved the expulsion from the priesthood of a former high-ranking American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick for sexual abuse of minors and adults.
The convictions were also confirmed days after Francis concluded a landmark summit with church leaders whom he summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests.
Reaction to the long-awaited summit from abuse victims and their families was unenthusiastic.
Three clergy abuse survivors who attended the summit told CBS News on Monday that they still wanted to know why the Church still had not laid out concrete steps to stop child sex abuse. “CBS This Morning” followed their fight for justice all the way from the U.S. to Rome, where they attended the summit and demanded a zero-tolerance policy for abuse.
On Sunday Francis addressed the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, promising to confront abusers with “the wrath of God,” end the cover-ups by church officials, and prioritize the victims of what he termed “brazen, aggressive and destructive evil.”
But the survivor Mary Dispenza, a former nun, told CBS News correspondent Nikki Battiste she didn’t “think our children are any safer now than four days ago, by what I heard.” In a word, Dispenza called the summit “disappointing.”
Shaun Dougherty, who was molested by a teacher at a Catholic grade school when he was 10, used a different word: “shortfall.”
Perhaps slightly more generous, Pennsylvania State Legislator Mark Rozzi, who said his priest raped him when he was 13 years old, characterized it as “a start.”
“I haven’t heard any plan,” Dougherty said, adding that the summit was, “a recognition of what we already knew. It seems like the Church finally gets it. Now that you do understand that this is happening and you’ve said your bishops are comparable – where’s the next step? Where is the action plan?”
Cardinal Pell’s crimes
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.
The first four offenses occurred at the first or second Solemn Mass that Archbishop Pell celebrated as leader of the magnificent blue-stone century-old cathedral in the center 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.
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 jeopardize anything. I didn’t want to rock the boat with my family, my schooling, my life.”
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.