25 February 2019
Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of sexual offences in Australia, making him the highest-ranking Catholic figure to receive such a conviction.
Pell abused two choir boys in the rooms of a Melbourne cathedral in 1996, a jury found. He had pleaded not guilty.
The verdict was handed down in December, but it could not be reported until now due to legal reasons.
Pell is due to be sentenced on Wednesday. He has lodged an appeal against his conviction.
As Vatican treasurer, the 77-year-old cardinal is one of the Church’s most powerful officials.
His trial was heard twice last year because a first jury failed to reach a verdict.
A second jury unanimously convicted him of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.
The Catholic Church worldwide has in recent years faced a damaging series of allegations relating to sex abuse by priests, and claims that these cases were covered up.
Pell’s case has drawn huge interest at a time when the Pope is attempting to address the scandals, including by holding a four-day summit in the past week.
What did the court hear?
Pell was in his first year as archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 when he found the two boys in cathedral rooms following a mass, the jury was told.
After telling them they were in trouble for drinking communion wine, Pell forced each boy into indecent acts, prosecutors said.
The court heard testimony from one of the victims. The other victim is no longer alive.
A jury rejected an argument by Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter QC, that the allegations were fantasies contrived by the victims.
What has been the reaction?
In a statement on Tuesday, Pell’s surviving victim – who cannot be named – said the case had been stressful, adding “it is not over yet”.
The man said he had experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle” because of the abuse.
“Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life,” he said.
Pell was swarmed by media, and heckled by protesters as he left court on Tuesday.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said the conviction had “shocked many across Australia and around the world.”
What has Pell said?
“Cardinal George Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so,” said a statement issued on his behalf on Tuesday.
The cardinal said he awaited the outcome of his appeal. He has been on leave from the Vatican since June 2017, fighting the accusations.
Why was the case kept secret?
Last May, a judge handed down a legal order which prevented any reporting of Pell’s trial and conviction.
It was designed to prevent a separate trial – which will no longer go ahead – from being influenced by the first trial.
The abandoned trial was to hear unrelated allegations – strongly denied by Pell – that he indecently assaulted boys in Ballarat, Victoria, in the 1970s. Prosecutors withdrew their case on Tuesday, citing insufficient evidence.
The collapse of the second trial led to the publication ban, known as a suppression order, being lifted.
Cardinal ‘didn’t flinch’ in court
Hywel Griffith, BBC News Australia correspondent
George Pell would sit in the dock with his notebook, listening, writing, but never really betraying any emotion.
As the court heard vivid descriptions of how in 1996 he had forced himself upon two victims, pushing his archbishop’s robes to one side in order to expose himself, he didn’t flinch.
After two trials, one hung jury and many months of waiting – the results of this long process are now public.
The pace of justice has felt slow at times, but it has resulted in one of the Church’s most prominent and powerful figures being held to account.
Who is Pell?
The Australian cleric forged his career as a strong supporter of traditional Catholic values, taking conservative views against contraception and abortion, and advocating for priestly celibacy.
He was summoned to Rome by the Pope in 2014 to clean up the Vatican’s finances, and was considered to be the Church’s third-ranked official.
But his career has been dogged first by claims that he covered up child sexual abuse by priests, and then later that he was himself an abuser.
Pope Francis demoted Pell from his inner circle in December.
What is the wider picture?
The sexual abuse of children was rarely discussed in public before the 1970s, and it was not until the 1980s that the first cases of molestation by priests came to light, in the US and Canada.
In the 1990s, revelations began of widespread abuse in Ireland and in the new century, more cases of abuse were revealed in more than a dozen countries.
Since his election, Pope Francis has appeared to offer new hope to victims. Under his papacy, a Vatican committee has been set up to fight sexual abuse and help victims.
In recent days, the Pope promised concrete action in tackling child sex abuse.
However, he has also been criticised for not doing enough to hold to account bishops who carried out abuse, and those alleged to have covered it up.
Victims’ groups have frequently responded to the Vatican’s efforts with scepticism.
Cardinal George Pell found guilty of child sexual assault
Vatican treasuer, the third most senior Catholic in the world, convicted on five charges in Australian court case
Tue 26 Feb 2019 01.44 GMT
Cardinal George Pell, once the third most powerful man in the Vatican and Australia’s most senior Catholic, has been found guilty of child sexual abuse after a trial in Melbourne.
A jury delivered the unanimous verdict on 11 December in Melbourne’s county court, but the result was subject to a suppression order and could not be reported until now.
A previous trial on the same five charges, which began in August, resulted in a hung jury, leading to a retrial.
Pell, who is on leave from his role in Rome as Vatican treasurer, was found guilty of sexually penetrating a child under the age of 16 as well as four charges of an indecent act with a child under the age of 16. The offences occurred in December 1996 and early 1997 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, months after Pell was inaugurated as archbishop of Melbourne.
He is due to be sentenced next week but may be taken into custody at a plea hearing on Wednesday, having been out on bail since the verdict and recovering from knee surgery.
Pope Francis, who has previously praised Pell for his honesty and response to child sexual abuse, has yet to publicly react, but just two days after the unreported verdict in December the Vatican announced that Pell and two other cardinals had been removed from the pontiff’s council of advisers.
Pell’s conviction and likely imprisonment will cause shockwaves through a global Catholic congregation and is a blow to Francis’s efforts to get a grip on sexual abuse.
It comes just days after an unprecedented summit of cardinals and senior bishops in the presence of the pope at the Vatican, intended to signal a turning point on the issue that has gravely damaged the church and imperilled Francis’s papacy.
Before returning to Australia to face the charges, Pell was for three years prefect of the secretariat for the economy of the Holy See, making him one of the most senior Catholics in the world. He was one of Francis’s most trusted advisers, and was handpicked to oversee the Vatican’s complex finances and root out corruption.
On the day of the dramatic verdict, after a four-and-a-half-week trial, Pell stood in the dock showing no reaction and staring straight ahead. The room was silent as the foreman told the court that the jury had found the cardinal guilty on all charges. Pell’s defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, when asked by journalists if he would appeal, responded: “Absolutely.”
Pell will now almost certainly face jail time.
The case against Pell centred around events of more than 22 years ago.
The jury found that in the second half of December 1996, while he was archbishop of Melbourne, Pell walked in on two 13-year-old choirboys after a Sunday solemn mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral and sexually assaulted them.
The complainant, who is now aged 35 and cannot be named, said he and the other choirboy had separated from the choir procession as it exited the church building. The prosecution’s case hinged on his evidence, as the other victim died in 2014 after a heroin overdose. Neither victim told anyone about the offending at the time.
After leaving the procession, the complainant said, he and the other boy sneaked back into the church corridors and entered the priest’s sacristy, a place they knew they should not be. There they found some sacramental wine and began to drink. The complainant alleged that Pell had walked in on them and told them something to the effect that they were in trouble.
Pell manoeuvred his robes to expose his penis. He stepped forward, grabbed the other boy by the back of his head, and forced the boy’s head on to his penis, the complainant told the court.
Pell then did the same thing to the complainant, orally raping him. Once he had finished, he ordered the complainant to remove his pants, before fondling the complainant’s penis and masturbating himself. The complainant said the attack lasted only a few minutes, and the boys left the room afterwards, hung up their choir robes and went home.
Being in the choir was a condition of the complainant’s scholarship to attend St Kevin’s College, an elite independent school in the affluent inner-Melbourne suburb of Toorak, the court heard.
“I knew a scholarship could be given or taken away even at that age,” the complainant told the court. “And I didn’t want to lose that. It meant so much to me. And what would I do if I said such a thing about an archbishop? It’s something I carried with me the whole of my life.”
The complainant alleged that either later that year in 1996, or in early 1997, Pell attacked him again. He said he was walking down a hallway to the choristers’ change room, again after singing at Sunday solemn mass at the cathedral, when Pell allegedly pushed him against the wall and squeezed his genitals hard through his choir robes, before walking off.
The complainant told the court that after the attacks he could not fathom what had happened to him and that he dealt with it by pushing it to the “darkest corners and recesses” of his mind.
In his police statement, the complainant said he remembered Pell “being a big force in the place”.
“He emanated an air of being a powerful person,” he said. “I’ve been struggling with this a long time … and my ability to be here. [Because] I think Pell has terrified me my whole life … he was [later] in the Vatican. He was an extremely, presidentially powerful guy who had a lot of connections.”
In his closing address, the crown prosecutor Mark Gibson told the jury their verdict would come down to whether they believed the complainant beyond reasonable doubt. They should find the complainant an honest witness, Gibson said.
Pell pleaded not guilty from the beginning. He was interviewed by a Victorian detective, Christopher Reed, in Rome in October 2016, and the video of that interview was played to the court. In that interview Pell described the allegations as “a load of garbage and falsehood”.
When Reed said the attacks were alleged to have occurred after Sunday mass, Pell responded: “That’s good for me as it makes it even more fantastically impossible.”
Pell’s defence team told the jury there were so many improbabilities in the prosecution’s case that they should conclude the abuse could not have happened. Richter said it was unlikely that two boys could leave the choir procession after mass unnoticed or that the sacristy would be unattended or left unlocked, or that Pell would be able to manoeuvre his robes to show his penis in the way described by the complainant. The robes were brought into the court for jurors to view.
Richter used a PowerPoint presentation in the retrial during his closing address to the jurors, something he did not do in the first. One of the slides read: “Only a madman would attempt to rape two boys in the priests’ sacristy immediately after Sunday solemn mass.”
In his directions to the jury, the judge, Peter Kidd, told them that the trial was not an opportunity to make Pell a scapegoat for the failures of the Catholic church.
The jury took less than four days to reach their unanimous verdict.
Until now the trials have been subject to a suppression order and could not be reported. The reason for the strict order was that Pell faced a second trial in relation to separate alleged historical offences. The first trial was suppressed temporarily so information from it would be less likely to influence the jury in the second. Suppression orders are not unusual in such cases.
But Kidd has now ordered that reporting restrictions be lifted after the Department of Public Prosecutions dropped the second set of charges. Kidd had ruled that key evidence was inadmissible and could not be used, significantly weakening the prosecution’s case.
Pell is born in the Victorian town of Ballarat.
Pell returns as a parish priest to Ballarat, where abuse is widespread.
Pell lives with the paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.
Pell supports Ridsdale at a court appearance for child sex offences. Ridsdale is eventually convicted of abusing more than 60 children.
Pell is appointed archbishop of Melbourne. He introduces the Melbourne Response, which offers counselling to victims of sexual abuse but caps compensation payments.
Pell is appointed archbishop of Sydney.
Pope John Paul II appoints Pell a cardinal.
The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, announces the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
Pell is appointed the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, effectively the Vatican’s treasurer.
Pell appears before the royal commission for the first time.
Pell appears again in Melbourne, where he likens the church’s responsibility for child abuse to that of a “trucking company” whose driver had sexually assaulted a hitch-hiker.
Pell gives evidence to the royal commission via videolink from Rome. He denies he had any knowledge at the time of Ridsdale’s offending. He says once he did find out, it was a “sad story” but “not of much interest” to him.
Australian detectives interview Pell in Rome about child sexual abuse allegations. Pell dismisses them as “absolute and disgraceful rubbish”.
Pell is charged with multiple sexual offences.
Pell is ordered to stand trial over multiple allegations. The details may not be reported at this time for legal reasons. Pell says he will plead not guilty. The charges are to be split into two trials. The first relates to allegations that Pell sexually abused two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 and 1997. The second relates to allegations Pell molested boys at the Ballarat swimming pool in the 1970s.
Prosecutors request a suppression order, later approved, which bars reporting of the trials.
The jury in the first trial fails to reach a verdict. A mistrial is declared.
The jury in the retrial finds Pell guilty on all charges.
Prosecutors drop the swimming pool charges after the judge rules certain evidence is inadmissible. The suppression order on the first trial is lifted.