MELBOURNE • Australian Cardinal George Pell, one of Pope Francis' closest advisers, has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two choirboys, becoming the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex crimes.
An Australian jury unanimously found Pell guilty in December on one count of sexual abuse and four counts of indecent assault against two boys at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s.
Pell, now aged 77, was accused of cornering the boys - then aged 12 and 13 - in the cathedral's sacristy following Sunday mass and forcing them to perform a sex act on him.
The cleric, who has remained free on bail, denied all the charges and an initial trial ended with a hung jury in September, but he was convicted on retrial on Dec 11.
A wide-ranging suppression order from the presiding judge had prevented the media from reporting even the existence of court proceedings and the ensuing trials since May.
The order was lifted during a court hearing yesterday when prosecutors decided against proceeding with a second trial for separate allegations against Pell dating from the 1970s.
It is painful news that, we are well aware, has shocked many people, not just in Australia.
A VATICAN STATEMENT
Pell maintained his innocence yesterday. "Cardinal George Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so," said a statement issued by his lawyers, who added that they had lodged an appeal.
The Vatican yesterday confirmed that a ban on Pell exercising public ministry and having any contact with children still stands, on the order of Pope Francis.
A Vatican statement said: "It is painful news that, we are well aware, has shocked many people, not just in Australia. As we await the definitive verdict, we join the Australian bishops in praying for all victims of abuse, reaffirming our commitment to do everything possible so that the Church is a safe home for everyone, especially for children."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was "deeply shocked" by Pell's conviction and that the justice system had shown "no Australian is above the law".
Of the two choirboys that Pell was found to have assaulted, one died in 2014 of a drug overdose that his family blamed on the trauma he suffered.
The second victim said in a statement issued by his lawyer yesterday that the ongoing legal process was stressful and "not over yet".
"Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle. Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life," said the man, who has not been publicly identified.
Outside the County Court of Victoria, supporters of other abuse survivors yelled "monster" and "rot in hell" as Pell got into a car after the hearing. A pre-sentencing hearing is scheduled for today, when Pell is expected to be remanded in custody. He faces a maximum 25 years in prison if his appeal is rejected, prosecutors have said.
His conviction is another hammer blow to the Church, which has struggled to convince the world it is serious about tackling widespread child abuse and paedophilia.
Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to manage the Vatican finances in 2014 and was one of the pontiff's closest advisers until his Dec 11 conviction.
On Sunday, the pope closed a historic Vatican summit on sexual abuse by priests by likening the abuse to "human sacrifice".
But critics say the institution is still moving too slowly in dealing with a problem that is global in scale.
The case has caused consternation in Australia, where Pell was a leading conservative voice on issues ranging from gay marriage to climate change.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS