MELBOURNE (AP, REUTERS) - An Australian court by a 2-1 majority ruling on Wednesday (Aug 21) upheld convictions against Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic to be found guilty of child sex abuse.
The Victoria state Court of Appeal rejected Pell's appeal of the unanimous verdicts a jury issued in December finding Pope Francis' former finance minister guilty of molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral in 1996 and 1997.
At the time, Pell had just become archbishop of Australia's second-largest city and had set up a world-first compensation arrangement for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
His lawyers are expected to appeal against the decision in the High Court, Australia's final arbiter.
Pell, 78, showed no emotion when Chief Justice Anne Ferguson read the verdict to a packed courtroom, but bowed his head moments later. He wore a cleric's collar but not his cardinal's ring. Pell had arrived at the court in a prison van and was handcuffed as he was led away by a guard.
The Vatican acknowledged the court's decision to uphold Pell’s conviction on sexual abuse but said he has a right to another appeal.
"As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court," the Vatican said in a statement.
"At this time, together with the Church in Australia, the Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse."
Pell is no longer a member of Pope Francis' council of cardinals or a Vatican official.
Clerical sexual abuse and the Catholic church's handling of such cases worldwide have thrown Francis' papacy into turmoil.
In a little more than a year, the pope has acknowledged he made "grave errors" in Chile's worst cover-up, Pell was convicted of abuse, a French cardinal was convicted of failing to report a paedophile, and a third cardinal, former US church leader Theodore McCarrick, was defrocked after a Vatican investigation determined he molested children and adults.
Pell's lawyers had to prove to the appeals court that the jury that unanimously convicted him in December must have held a reasonable doubt about his guilt. An earlier trial had ended in a deadlocked jury. An 11-to-1 majority decision to either convict or acquit could have been accepted, but at least two jurors held out.
Prosecutors replied that the evidence of more than 20 priests, choristers, altar servers and church officials showed there were "possible hindrances" to the prosecution case, but did not preclude the jury from being satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of Pell's guilt.
Pell's lawyers argue the events in 1996 as described in the prosecution case were "improbable and even impossible" to have happened quickly and in part of the cathedral where altar servers and priests were likely to walk in at any moment.
One of the choirboys, identified by the sentencing judge as J.J., was the key prosecution witness. His friend, identified as M.R., died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31 without ever complaining he had been abused.
The father of the dead choirboy, neither of whom can be named, attended the court hearing on Wednesday, the father's lawyer Lisa Flynn said before the hearing.
Ms Flynn said a Pell win would be "devastating" for the father, but that he would continue with a civil suit against Pell and the Church regardless of the outcome.
"Survivors and victims of child sex abuse all over the world will be watching with bated breath this morning as this decision is handed down," Ms Flynn told Nine Network television outside court.
"I do think it's one of the most important legal outcomes for survivors of abuse in recent history and I think that the outcome will have an impact right around the world," she added.
Pell did not testify at either of his trials. But both juries saw a video of a police interview of him in Rome in 2016, in which he rejected the allegations as "absolutely disgraceful rubbish" and a "deranged falsehood". When sentencing Pell to six years in prison in March, the trial judge accused Pell of showing "staggering arrogance" in his crimes.
Pell was ordered to serve a minimum of three years and eight months before he is eligible for parole.