AMID rowdy scenes outside a Victorian courthouse Cardinal George Pell has been formally remanded in custody – a first step towards jail – after being found guilty of child sexual abuse.
Cardinal Pell’s defence team withdrew a bail application, and he will now be sentenced on March 13.
Cardinal Pell’s conviction has shocked Catholics across Australia and around the world, yet 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”.
At the same time, the Holy See “reaffirmed maximum respect for the Australian judicial authorities”.
Cardinal Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter, QC, himself ran the gauntlet of a loud, jostling crowd outside court, an action that was condemned by Judge Peter Kidd as an “assault on the court”.
Cardinal Pell was prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy and one of the most senior Catholic figures in the world.
He has been found guilty of abusing two choir boys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.
A jury delivered the unanimous verdict 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 was granted bail, awaiting another trial on more sex abuse charges.
The second trial has now been abandoned, allowing the suppression order to be lifted.
Cardinal Pell 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”.
“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.”
Pope Francis has confirmed “precautionary measures” prohibiting Cardinal Pell from publicly exercising his ministry as a priest and from having contact with minors, Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Holy See press office, said.