CARDINAL George Pell has spent his first days in jail after being found guilty of child sexual abuse, and awaiting sentencing on March 13.
He has been found guilty of abusing two choir boys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.
Cardinal Pell’s conviction has shocked Catholics across Australia and around the world.
During his appearance in the Victorian County Court, lawyers provided character references in support of Cardinal Pell, including from former Prime Minister John Howard.
A statement from the Holy See said the conviction was “a painful news that, we are well aware, has shocked very many persons, not only in Australia”.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a doctrinal watchdog that also handles sexual abuse cases will conduct a canonical investigation into the charges against Cardinal Pell, who until recently, was prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy, one of the most powerful positions in the Catholic world.
A jury delivered the unanimous guilty verdict against Cardinal Pell in Melbourne’s County Court months ago – on December 11 – but the result was subject to a strict suppression order which prevented Australian media organisations from publishing the news.
The order was lifted on February 26, allowing reporting of the case.
Cardinal Pell was found guilty of five charges including sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child under 16.
He has maintained his innocence, and his legal team will appeal against the conviction.
During Cardinal Pell’s court case, the court was told his victims were two 13-year-old choirboys who were assaulted in December 1996 and February 1997.
One of the victims, now in his 30s, reported the allegations to police in 2015.
He gave evidence during the trial.
The second boy died in 2014.
Both incidents of assault took place after Sunday Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne and while Cardinal Pell was vested.
It is now being reported that in the first incident, the choirboys broke away from a procession outside the cathedral and snuck back into the sacristy – a room where priests dress for Mass – and were swigging sacramental wine when Cardinal Pell walked in.
Cardinal Pell told the boys they were in trouble and then exposed himself.
A further allegation was that in 1997 Cardinal Pell pushed one of the boys against a wall in a cathedral hallway and groped him.
A previous trial on the same five charges was discharged in September, when jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
However, in the retrial last December a jury of 12 unanimously found Cardinal Pell guilty of the five offences.
It took the jury three days to deliberate after a four-week trial.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge has expressed shock at the final court outcome, but said he respected the rule of law.
“The same legal system that delivered the verdict will consider the appeal that the cardinal’s legal team has lodged,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“Our hope, at all times, is that through this process, justice will be served.
“In the meantime, 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.”
The Holy See issued a statement joining the bishops’ conference “in recognising the sentence of condemnation of Cardinal George Pell, yet awaiting the final outcome of the appeal”.
The statement continued: “While awaiting the definitive judgment, we join the Australian bishops in praying for all the victims of abuse, by reaffirming our commitment to do everything possible so that the Church is a safe house for all, and especially for children and vulnerable persons.”
Following the trial and conviction a senior policeman in charge of the taskforce investigating sex abuse allegations against Cardinal Pell accused the Catholic Church of failing to co-operate fully with police.
Sergeant in charge Doug Smith likened the Church’s co-operation to a protester playing dead on a road, “not resisting the police, but the police would have to pick that person up and drag them off the street”, he told the ABC’s Four Corners program.
The Archdiocese of Melbourne rejected the claims, arguing that it had produced all documents and records required, and facilitated a number of inspections of St Patrick’s Cathedral.