VERONA (Italy) • Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty in Australia of charges related to sexual abuse, media reports and two people familiar with the case say, becoming the highest ranking Vatican official to face such a conviction.
The conviction provides one of the clearest examples yet of how the sexual abuse scandal has eroded the church's credibility while ensnaring figures in the upper echelons of power.
Pell, who has declared his innocence, had taken a leave of absence from the Vatican's third most powerful position, as the economy minister, to fight the charges.
The Vatican on Wednesday did not address the explosive case, but it did announce that Pope Francis had, in October, removed Pell from his advisory group known as the Council of Cardinals, along with a Chilean cardinal, Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, who is accused of covering up for abusive priests.
(A third cleric - Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya - was also removed from the council, but has no known ties to abuse and recently retired from his position as the archbishop of Kinshasa.)
Pope Francis' tepid responses on specific cases related to high-ranking clerics and abuse have sent his favourability rates plunging. The Vatican announcement came after the council's latest meeting.
One Australian courtroom source said Pell's sentencing would begin in February and that he will be tried next year on additional charges.
This is the second church-related case from Australia to make headlines in recent days. Last week, an Australian appeals court cleared Mr Philip Wilson, the former archbishop of Adelaide, on charges that he helped conceal the sexual abuse of two altar boys by a priest.
The Pell conviction was first reported by the Daily Beast, which said the charges stemmed from the abuse of two choir boys in the 1990s. His case in Melbourne has unfolded in secrecy because of a court-issued gag order.
That order has led to a blackout in Australia about the news of a figure who was once among the country's most highly regarded Catholic leaders, the son of a gold miner who rose to become the archbishop in both Melbourne and Sydney.
Major Australian outlets on Wednesday did not carry headlines about the case, but some wrote cryptic stories explaining that significant news had unfolded but could not be reported. "A very high-profile figure was convicted on Tuesday of a serious crime, but we are unable to report their identity due to a suppression order," Melbourne's paper, the Age, wrote.
A judge in the County Court of Victoria had called earlier this year for the gag order as a way "to prevent a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice". Calls and messages to Pell's lawyers were not returned.
Pell was one of the most powerful officials at the Vatican, and he was placed several years ago on Pope Francis' advisory council, which was meant to help the pontiff reform the Vatican bureaucracy.
When the authorities in Australia last year announced that Pell faced "historical sexual assault offences", the cardinal said the accusations were false, adding: "The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me."
A Vatican spokesman on Wednesday declined to address Pell's case, saying the Holy See "has the utmost respect for Australian judicial authorities", and added: "We are aware there is a suppression order in place by the court, and we respect that order."
The Vatican is preparing for a landmark summit in February in which leading bishops from across the world will meet in Rome to discuss sexual abuse and the protection of minors. WASHINGTON POST
Justice not only must be done but also (must) be seen.
MR PETER SAUNDERS, a founding member of Ending Clergy Abuse.