MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - An Australian court has found Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican Treasurer and a former top adviser to Pope Francis, guilty on five charges of child sexual offences committed more than two decades ago against 13-year-old boys.
The verdict was made public on Tuesday (Feb 26) following the lifting of a court suppression order on the trial, after a second abuse case against Pell was dropped by the prosecution.
A jury in the Country Court of Victoria in Melbourne had found Pell guilty on Dec 11 last year following a four-week trial.
Pell becomes the most senior Catholic clergyman worldwide to be convicted for child sex offences. He had pleaded not guilty to all five charges.
He was convicted of five sexual offences committed against the 13-year-old choir boys 22 years earlier in the priests’ sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where Pell was archbishop. One of the two victims died in 2014.
Each of the five offences carries a maximum 10 years in jail. Pell’s lawyers have filed an appeal against the verdict on three grounds, which if successful could lead to a retrial.
Pell, who remains on bail, left the court on Tuesday without speaking to reporters, who virtually mobbed him as he walked from the courthouse steps to a waiting car. He is due to return to court on Wednesday (Feb 27) for the start of his sentencing hearing.
The verdict has been made public as the Catholic church tries to deal with a growing child sexual abuse crisis, following scandals in the United States, Chile, Germany and Australia.
The Vatican said in December that Francis had removed Pell, 77, from his group of close advisers, without commenting on the trial.
Pell, who took indefinite leave in 2016 from his role as economy minister for the Vatican to fight the charges, was not called to the stand in the trial.
Instead, the jury was shown in open court a video recording of an interview Australian police held with Pell in Rome in October 2016, in which he strenuously denied the allegations.
The jury was also shown a video recording of the surviving victim’s testimony behind closed doors.
The court had issued a suppression order on the trial out of concern that a second trial Pell faced could be prejudiced by the outcome of the first case. But prosecutors dropped the charges on Tuesday.
Judge Peter Kidd had extended bail for Pell, who had been walking with a crutch throughout the trial, to allow him to undergo double-knee surgery in Sydney in December. His bail had been extended since then.