MELBOURNE • Former Vatican treasurer George Pell was sentenced to six years in jail yesterday for sexually abusing two choir boys in Melbourne in the 1990s, and will be registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
County Court of Victoria Chief Judge Peter Kidd, who handed down the sentence in a live television broadcast, said there was a real possibility that, at age 77, Pell could spend the rest of his life in prison. A former top adviser to Pope Francis, Pell is the most senior Catholic to be convicted for child sex offences.
The cardinal's downfall brings to the heart of the papal administration a scandal over clerical abuse that has ravaged the Church's credibility in the United States, Chile, Australia and elsewhere over the last three decades.
"In my view, your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance," said Judge Kidd in handing down the sentence after Pell was convicted of five charges of sexually abusing two children.
"Viewed overall, I consider your moral culpability across both episodes to be high," the judge told the packed courtroom.
Pell, who appeared in court without a priest's collar for the first time during the case, showed no emotion during the sentencing hearing that ran for more than one hour.
He has maintained his innocence and has filed an appeal that is scheduled to be heard in June.
The offences against the two 13-year-old boys took place after Sunday mass in 1996 and 1997 at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, where Pell was archbishop.
History of the case against Pell
March: Police set up a secret task force to investigate allegations concerning George Pell. The probe is revealed only during court hearings last year.
February: Pell is handpicked by Pope Francis as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, widely viewed as the third-most powerful position in the Vatican.
March and August: Pell gives evidence on two occasions to an Australian Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse allegations against the Catholic Church.
December: Police appeal for information on alleged child sex abuse in Melbourne between 1996 and 2001, the period when Pell served as archbishop.
February: Local media reports that Pell is being investigated by police over sex abuse allegations. He denies the allegations.
July: National broadcaster ABC airs sex abuse allegations against Pell. He denies the allegations and suggests there is a conspiracy against him.
August: Pope Francis says "we must avoid a media verdict, a verdict based on gossip", when asked about the allegations against Pell.
October: Pell is interviewed by Victoria state police in Rome over sex abuse claims.
May: ABC journalist publishes a book detailing sex abuse allegations against Pell. The cardinal denies the allegations.
June: Pell is charged with multiple historical child sexual offences.
July: Court suppresses details of the charges except that there are "multiple complainants" and "multiple charges" for "historical sexual offences".
May: Pell returns to court, where it is decided that two trials involving separate allegations and locations will be held.
Aug 15: Opening of first trial involving five alleged offences, including sexual penetration and indecent acts with a child aged below 16 at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the late 1990s.
Dec 11: Pell is found guilty on all five charges - one of sexual penetration of a child under 16 years and four of indecent acts with a child under 16.
Dec 12: Pell is removed from the Vatican's so-called C9 Council of Cardinals, an international advisory body set up by Pope Francis.
Feb 26: Prosecutors decide not to proceed with the second trial, involving alleged sexual offences in the 1970s, allowing the reporting of the first trial and verdict.
Feb 27: The Vatican drops Pell as its finance chief and says it will launch an internal probe into the child sex abuse charges.
March 13: Pell is sentenced to six years in prison for sexually abusing two choir boys in 1996 to 1997.
One of the victims died in 2014. The other victim, who testified and was cross-examined at the trial, issued a statement through his solicitor saying he found it hard to take comfort in the verdict.
"Being a witness in a criminal case has not been easy. I am doing my best to hold myself and my family together," said the victim, who cannot be identified under Australian law. "However, there is no rest for me. Everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal."
At the trial, the victim described how Pell exposed himself to him and the other boy, fondled their genitals, masturbated and forced one boy to perform an oral sex act on him.
Pell was found guilty by a jury on four charges of indecent acts and one of sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 10 years in jail for each charge.
Judge Kidd said that as Pell had maintained his innocence, he had not shown remorse or contrition.
The dead victim's father, who was in court for the sentencing, was disappointed with the jail term, his lawyer Lisa Flynn told Reuters. "When he compares what his son and his family and he himself went through, it seems quite a light sentence," said Ms Flynn.
Dr Cathy Kezelman, of child abuse victims support group Blue Knot Foundation, said the length of the sentence was not as much as what her organisation had hoped for. "We must remember that victims are sentenced for life. He was not," she said.
After the sentence was handed down, Pell signed paperwork related to his registration as a sex offender, bowed to the judge and, aided by a walking stick, was escorted out of the court.
The Vatican has said it will not comment on the case until after the appeal. If defrocked, Pell would be the highest-profile figure to be dismissed from the priesthood in modern times.