Melbourne―Convicted Australian Cardinal George Pell will spend his first night behind bars Wednesday following his historic conviction for child sex crimes, capping an extraordinary fall from grace for one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church.
Once among Pope Francis’ closest advisers and the most senior Catholic cleric ever found guilty of child sex crimes, Pell returned to court for a pre-sentencing hearing a day after his conviction was made public on Tuesday.
The 77-year-old is facing up to 50 years’ jail after being convicted on five counts of sexual and indecent assault of two choirboys in the sacristy of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996-97, shortly after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne.
Pell, who has lodged an appeal against the verdict, will be sentenced on March 13. His lawyers earlier Wednesday withdrew an application for bail following his conviction, saying the cleric “believes it is appropriate for him to await sentencing”.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Chief Judge Peter Kidd blasted Pell’s behavior at Saint Patrick’s as “callous, brazen offending”.
“I think it did involve breach of trust... he exploited two vulnerable young boys. They were entrusted into the care of the church... and the person who stood at the top of that was your client,” he said.
Arguing that Pell should receive a substantial punishment, Crown Prosecutor Mark Gibson said the cleric had “shown no remorse” nor “taken responsibility for his actions”.
“There has been a breach of trust... Cardinal Pell was the driving force... and in charge of the cathedral, and these choristers were cogs in the cathedral wheel,” Gibson said.
But defense lawyers issued a statement following the hearing insisting that “despite the unprecedented media coverage, Cardinal Pell has always and continues to maintain his innocence.
“Like any person he has the right to pursue his legal rights and will do so.”
Pell’s barrister, Robert Richter, argued in court for a short prison sentence, saying that even if Pell had committed the crimes, they were no more than a “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where a child is not volunteering”. AFP
He stressed that Pell had received 10 supporting character references from individuals such as former prime minister John Howard and that “none of them believe him capable of” the crimes for which he was convicted.
“This is a court of law, not a court of morals,” he told Judge Kidd.
The conviction of Pell, long a prominent and conservative voice in Australia, has rocked the nation and dominated the news.
In chaotic scenes, a large media pack and crowd confronted the cardinal as he arrived at court Wednesday morning, with one protester screaming: “You’re a maggot, Pell, you rot in hell.”
“You’re the devil,” You’re evil... you’re a pedophile,” “criminal”, “monster”, “May you rot in hell,” protesters shouted.
It was just after Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti announced on Twitter that Pell had been removed from his position as chief of Vatican finances, the third-most powerful position in the Church.
Pell was found guilty in December of assaulting the two choirboys, but the verdict was only revealed Tuesday after a second trial against him was abandoned by prosecutors, allowing a gag order to be lifted.
Pell’s appeal will be based on three grounds -- that the jury verdict was unreasonable, that there were issues with how the jury was formed and that the defense had not been allowed to show jurors an animation illustrating the movements of people in the cathedral on the day of the alleged assault.
The Court of Appeal process, which could last up to a year, will see a bench usually made up of three judges review the same evidence that the jurors were presented with in the earlier trial.
Criminal law expert Jeremy Gans of the University of Melbourne told AFP the judges could question the jury’s conclusions based on the fact that the case was based on only one person’s -- the surviving victim’s -- testimony.
The other choirboy, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, had never told his parents he was abused.
The Catholic Church could face a civil suit from the father of the deceased victim, who said via his lawyer Tuesday that the cleric had “blood on his hands”.
During the trial, the court had heard that Pell abused the two boys after catching them swigging from a bottle of sacramental wine. He exposed himself and forced one of them to perform oral sex on him, and fondled the boy’s genitals while masturbating. AFP