MELBOURNE • The former Vatican treasurer, Cardinal George Pell, will remain in prison for at least another three years after losing an appeal against his conviction for sexually abusing two 13-year-old choir boys, an Australian court ruled yesterday.
Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic worldwide to be convicted of child sex offences, was jailed for six years in March after being found guilty on five charges of abusing the two boys at St Patrick's Cathedral when he was archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s.
Supreme Court of Victoria Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said two of the three judges hearing the appeal "decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty of the offences charged" and rejected his appeal.
Under the terms of his sentencing, he will be eligible for parole in October 2022 when he will be 81.
Pell sat quietly in court as Chief Justice Ferguson read the judgment.
The jury in his trial heard testimony from a victim who described how Pell had exposed himself to the two boys, fondled their genitals and masturbated, and forced one boy to perform a sex act on him. The other victim died in 2014.
"I am grateful for a legal system that everyone can believe in, where everybody is equal before the law and no one is above the law," the surviving choir boy, now in his 30s, said in a statement read out by his lawyer, Ms Vivian Waller.
"The criminal process has been stressful. The journey has taken me to places that, in my darkest moments, I feared I could not return from," he said in the statement.
Pell's spokesman, Ms Katrina Lee, said he maintained his innocence and his legal team was examining the judgment to determine whether to lodge a special leave application to the High Court of Australia to hear a final appeal.
Pell has 28 days to file the application.
"Cardinal Pell is obviously disappointed with the decision today," Ms Lee said.
The Vatican said it acknowledged the court's decision and remained committed to pursuing clergy who carried out abuse.
"As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the cardinal has always maintained his innocence... and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court," the Vatican said in a statement.
Pell's case has attracted global attention because it brought a growing crisis of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church - spanning scandals in the United States, Chile and Germany - right to the heart of the papal administration.
The Pope has said he would wait for Australian civil justice to take its course before commenting on the case.
Pell was taken back to Melbourne Assessment Prison yesterday and is likely to be moved to a medium-security prison in a rural area in the west of Victoria state where most of the roughly 700 prisoners are sex offenders, including priests.
He appealed against his conviction to Victoria's Court of Appeal on three grounds, mainly on the argument that the jury's verdict was unreasonable based on the evidence at the trial.
However, the court ruled in a 2-1 judgment that the conviction was reasonable, with two judges saying the surviving victim was a "compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth".
"As might have been expected, there were some things which he could remember and many things which he could not. And his explanations of why that was so had the ring of truth," the two judges said.
In contrast, they said the evidence by people supporting Pell varied in quality and consistency.
Pell is still a cardinal in the Catholic Church and would still be a priest even if he resigns from that position.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would have to find him guilty in a separate canonical trial or abbreviated procedure, known as an "administrative process", before he could be dismissed from the priesthood.