MELBOURNE (REUTERS, AFP) - Former Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to 6 years in jail on Wednesday (March 13) by an Australian court for sexually abusing two choir boys in Melbourne in the 1990s.
Pell, a former top adviser to Pope Francis, is the most senior Catholic worldwide to be convicted for child sex offences.
County Court of Victoria Chief Judge Peter Kidd said there was a real possibility that at aged 77, Pell could spend the rest of his life in prison.
"In my view, your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance," said Kidd in handing down the sentence after Pell was convicted of five counts of sexually abusing two children.
"Viewed overall, I consider your moral culpability across both episodes to be high."
Pell has maintained his innocence and has filed an appeal to be heard in June.
The offences against two 13-year-old boys took place after Sunday mass in late 1996 and early 1997 in a room and a corridor at St Patrick's Cathedral, in Melbourne, where Pell was archbishop.
Pell was found guilty on four charges of indecent acts and one of sexual penetration. He faced a maximum of 10 years in jail for each charge.
"In my view, the first episode in the priest's sacristy involved a brazen and forceful sexual attack on the two victims," Kidd told a packed court.
"The acts were sexually graphic. Both victims were visibly and audibly distressed during this offending," he said, adding Pell's behaviour had a "nasty element" to it.
Kidd said as archbishop Pell would have “cast a powerful shadow” and thought he could control the situation if caught. He also probably believed his victims would not complain.
During his trial, Pell’s own lawyer described the burly 1.9 metres (6 foot and 3 inches) tall cardinal as the “Darth Vader”of the Catholic Church.
Kidd said that as Pell had maintained his innocence, which was his right, he had not shown remorse or contrition for his actions and that his sentence reflected that.
Kidd made it clear the sentence was based solely on the crimes Pell was convicted of by the jury, and that Pell was not to be made a scapegoat for the failings or perceived failings of the Catholic Church.
He set a non-parole period of three years and eight months. He also said Pell would be registered as a sex offender for life.
"I am conscious that the term of imprisonment...carries with it a real, as distinct from theoretical, possibility that you may not live to be released from prison," the judge said.
Pell's sentencing was shown live on television, reflecting the high level of interest in the case, although only the judge was shown and the broadcast was cut immediately after the sentence was delivered.
The senior Catholic was convicted in December, but the verdict was suppressed from being made public in Australia by a court order until Feb 26, when further child sex offence charges against Pell dating back to the 1970s were dropped.
A former choirboy molested by Pell said on Wednesday it was “hard to take comfort” from the Vatican official’s sentence.
“It is hard for me to allow myself to feel the gravity of this moment,” the victim, who has not been identified, said through his lawyer Vivian Waller.
“I appreciate that the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child. However, there is no rest for me. Everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal.," he said, referring to hearings in the Court of Appeal scheduled to be heard on June 5-6.
The father of the other victim, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, said through his lawyer that Pell’s sentence was “disappointing”.
"Our client is disappointed with the short sentencing and has expressed sadness over what he believes is inadequate for the crime,” Lisa Flynn of Shine Lawyers said in a statement.
“I admire the courage of my client to keep fighting on behalf of his deceased son. To him, this battle is not over.”
Cathy Kezelman, the president of child abuse victims support group Blue Knot Foundation, said while the sentence was “significant”, “it is not as much as what we would’ve hoped”.
"We must remember that victims are sentenced for life. He was not.”