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Most senior Catholic charged with child sex abuse convicted in Australia

Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — 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, 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 Dec. 11 after more than two days of deliberation.

The court had until Tuesday (Feb. 26) forbidden publication of any details about the trial.

Pell faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing that begins on Wednesday. He has foreshadowed an appeal.

The revelations came in the same month that the Vatican announced Francis approved the expulsion from the priesthood for a former high-ranking American 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 monthlong trial with a crutch under his right arm, was released on bail to undergo surgical knee replacements in Sydney on Dec. 14. Prosecutor Mark Gibson did not oppose bail, saying the surgery would be more easily managed outside the prison system.

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.

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 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 churchman 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 leveled 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, Pell’s lawyer, 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-meter (10-foot) band of cloth called a stole around his neck. The outermost garment was the long poncho-like chasuble.

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 defense 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.

(Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.)

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Rod McGuirk

25 Comments

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  • The rear cover of “In the closet of the Vatican,” which I just started reading, prominently bears a quote of Pope Francis:

    Behind rigidity there is always something hidden, in many cases a double life.

    Cardinal Pell fits that description to a T – in public he fiercely denounced the gay marriage initiative in Australia. In private he was molesting choirboys. Pell is entirely consistent with the overarching picture Martel paints in his book of the vast array of conservative Vatican officials who lead duplicitous, hypocritical lives, cocooned in an elegant echo chamber and propped up by a structure of clericalism that closes ranks when under assault. Unsurprisingly, according to Martel, the most gay-friendly priests and bishops in the Vatican turn out to be straight – they have nothing to hide, you see. Isn’t that always the case?

  • “Cardinal Pell fits that description to a T – in public he fiercely denounced the gay marriage initiative in Australia.” Even a broken clock is right twice a day

  • Victims should simply contact a good lawyer and the civil authorities. The lawyer will make sure the authorities do the right thin. When enough of these perverts and their complacent bosses are marched of to jail and their employer’s assets are seized some changes will be made by the Roman Church. Do not expect Roman to correct the problem by it’s self.

  • Pell climbed the ecclesiastical ladder and got promoted and rewarded because he lost no opportunity to bash gay folks, LGBTQ folks.

    He denied communion to gays and lesbians.

    He stated that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve as he justified denying communion to gays and lesbians.

    He said that homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law, and he fought hard against same-sex marriage in Australia.

    He refused to meet with his lesbian cousin Monica Hingston, a former nun living in a committed monogamous relationship, when she asked to meet with him and discussion the teaching of the Vatican about sexual issues.

    But now this story. Anti-gay hardliners like Pell were moved up the Catholic hierarchical ladder precisely because they attacked gay folks — and then we learn the sordid secrets some of these men were hiding.

    How inconvenient for those who want to use the abuse narrative to bash gays and gay priests….

  • Homosexual hating homosexuals prefer to exercise their own real demons while pretending to exorcise my imaginary ones.
    The lowest people on earth, as Cardinal Sin– sorry, he’s in the Phillipines– Cardinal Pell so clearly demonstrates.

  • “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.”

    This, in the USA, would be grounds for a new trial.

  • Victoria is the Australian state which passed a law purporting to repeal the seal of confession.

    It is extremely anti-Catholic.

    I’d wait for the appellate court to weight in.

  • “He denied communion to gays and lesbians.”

    He followed his church’s teaching and discipline in denying communion to LGBT folks living unchaste lives.

    He also denied communion to the divorced doing the same.

    “He said that homosexual acts are contrary to the natural law”

    He taught as his church teaches.

    Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.’ They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

  • Your link is to a different case. Cardinal Pell was found guilty by a jury of 12 people. Although the verdict has been appealed I think it’s fair to say that the jury was in a better position to weigh the evidence than you or me.

  • I believe Connelly/Arnzen has morphed again….

    Art ?

    He/she writes in the same style as the above and with the same fervor – as the well-paid apologist he/she/it is.

  • “It was “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”, Richter said.”

    “Abuse survivors and advocates present in the court gasped as Richter made his arguments for a lower-end sentence. He said at one point that if Pell’s victims were “truly distressed” after being abused, they would have returned to their homes exhibiting that distress.”

    The article contained other horrible statements by Pell’s lawyer minimizing the abuse.

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