Most senior Catholic charged with child sex abuse convicted

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up.

Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis' top financial adviser and the Vatican's economy minister, bowed his head but then regained his composure as the 12-member jury delivered unanimous verdicts in the Victoria state County Court on Dec. 11 after more than two days of deliberation.

The court had until Tuesday forbidden publication of any details about the trial.

Pell faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing that begins on Wednesday. He has foreshadowed an appeal.

The revelations came in the same month that the Vatican announced Francis approved the expulsion from the priesthood for a former high-ranking American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, for sexual abuse of minors and adults.

The convictions were also confirmed days after Francis concluded his extraordinary summit of Catholic leaders summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests.

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FILE - In this March 5, 2018, file photo, Cardinal George Pell arrives for a hearing at an Australian court in Melbourne, Australia. A lawyer for the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis told the Australian court on Tuesday, April 17, 2018 that Pell could have been targeted with false accusations to punish him for the crimes of other clerics. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake, File)
Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrate Court in Melbourne Monday, March 5, 2018. The alleged victims of the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis began giving testimony to the Australian court on Monday. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)
Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrate Court in Melbourne Tuesday, May 1, 2018. Australian Cardinal Pell, the most senior Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, must stand trial on charges that he sexually abused multiple victims decades ago, a magistrate ruled Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
Cardinal George Pell departs a court house in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. An Australian state court employee has been fired for looking up in a restricted computer system details of charges facing the senior Vatican cleric, court officials say. (Joe Castro/AAP Image via AP)
Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
Cardinal George Pell emerges from a building in Melbourne on February 14, 2019. - Pell is facing prosecution for historical child sexual offences. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
Cardinal George Pell gestures as he talks during a news conference for the presentation of new president of Vatican Bank IOR, at the Vatican July 9, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File photo
Pope Benedict XVI (C), Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (R) and Australia's senior Catholic cleric Cardinal George Pell smile during an event to thank World Youth Day volunteers at the Domain in Sydney July 21, 2008. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz (AUSTRALIA)
Head of the Catholic Church in Australia Cardinal George Pell (C) pats a wallaby as Pope Benedict XVI (L) looks on at Kenthurst Study Centre ahead of World Youth Day in Sydney July 16, 2008. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Pool (AUSTRALIA)
Catholic cardinal George Pell of Australia enters a news conference about church sexual abuse, in Sydney July 8, 2008. Pell was embroiled in a sexual abuse controversy on Tuesday, only days before Pope Benedict arrives in Sydney for a visit that could see abuse victims staging protests. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AUSTRALIA)
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The jury convicted Pell of abusing two 13-year-old boys whom he had caught swigging sacramental wine in a rear room of Melbourne's St. Patrick's Cathedral in late 1996, as hundreds of worshippers were streaming out of Sunday services.

Pell, now 77 but 55 at the time, had just been named the most senior Catholic in Australia's second-largest city, Melbourne.

The jury also found Pell guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in a corridor more than a month later.

Pell had maintained his innocence throughout, describing the accusations as "vile and disgusting conduct" that went against everything he believed in.

His lawyer had told the jury that only a "mad man" would take the risk of abusing boys in such a public place. He said it was "laughable" that Pell would have been able to expose his penis and force the victim to take it in his mouth, given the cumbersome robes he was wearing.

Both he and Chief Judge Peter Kidd urged the jury of eight men and four women not to punish Pell for all the failings of the Catholic Church, which in Australia have been staggering.

"You must not scapegoat Cardinal Pell," Kidd told the jury.

Along with Ireland and the U.S., Australia has been devastated by the impact of the clerical abuse scandal, with a Royal Commission inquiry finding that 4,444 people reported they had been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia between 1980 and 2015.

Pell's own hometown of Ballarat had such a high incidence of abuse — and, survivors say, a correlated higher-than-average incidence of suicide — that the city warranted its own case study in the Royal Commission report.

As a result, Pell's trial amounted to something of a reckoning for survivors, with the brash and towering cardinal becoming the poster child for all that went wrong with the way the Catholic Church handled the scandal.

The conviction capped a year that had been so dominated by revelations of high-ranking sex abuse and cover-up that analysts openly speak of a crisis unparalleled since the Reformation. In addition to Pell, the allegations against McCarrick of groping a minor in the 1970s and of sleeping with adult seminarians became public.

As a result of the scandal, Francis' approval ratings have tanked in the United States, and his standing with conservative Catholics around the world — already on shaky ground over his outreach to divorcees — has plunged.

Up until the verdict, Pell's lawyers had appeared confident that they had established a reasonable doubt and had expected quick verdicts of not guilty.

When the jury chairman delivered the first guilty verdict, Pell's hands slipped from the arm rests of the chair where he sat in the dock at the back of the courtroom. His head bowed after the second verdict, but he restored his composure for the final verdicts.

Pell, who walked to and from court throughout his monthlong trial with a crutch under his right arm, was released on bail to undergo surgical knee replacements in Sydney on Dec. 14. Prosecutor Mark Gibson did not oppose bail, saying the surgery would be more easily managed outside the prison system.

The first four offenses occurred at the first or second Solemn Mass that Archbishop Pell celebrated as leader of the magnificent blue-stone century-old cathedral in the center of Melbourne. Pell was wearing his full robes — though not his staff or pointed bishops' hat — at the time.

The now 34-year-old survivor told the court that Pell orally raped him, then crouched and fondled the complainant's genitals while masturbating.

"I was young and I didn't really know what had happened to me. I didn't really know what it was, if it was normal," the complainant told the court.

The other victim died of a heroin overdose in 2014 without ever complaining of the abuse, and even denying to his suspicious mother that he had been molested while he was part of the choir.

Neither boy can now be identified.

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Catholic church's global sex abuse scandal
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Catholic church's global sex abuse scandal
An advocate and survivor of sexual abuse, looks at the photos of Catholic priests accused of sexual misconduct by victims during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Orange, Calif. Advocates for survivors of child sex abuse say they have compiled a list of 72 priests who served in the Southern California Diocese of Orange and who are accused of abusing kids. Lawyer Mike Reck on Thursday said that's many more than those reported by the Diocese and demanded greater transparency. The Diocese of Orange says the lawyers are trying to re-litigate old claims that the church takes any accusations of abuse "extraordinarily seriously." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska, left, and opposition lawmaker Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus,right, lift photos of young victims of abuse by priests during a meeting that demanded strict criminal punishment for pedophile priests at the parliament in Warsaw, Poland, Monday, Oct. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2018, file photo, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, listens to a reporter's question during a news conference during the USCCB's annual fall meeting in Baltimore. Prosecutors investigating a sexual abuse case against DiNardo are executing a search warrant at the offices of the local archdiocese, led by DiNardo, the cardinal leading the Catholic Church's response in the U.S. to sexual misconduct. Investigators from the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office were at the offices Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
The sun sets on a sign in front of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe offices in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Archbishop John Wester announced Thursday that the archdiocese will be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection next week, as the Catholic church in New Mexico has settled numerous claims of sexual abuse by clergy over the years and is close to depleting its reserves. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
An advocate and survivor of sexual abuse, points to the photos of Catholic priests accused of sexual misconduct by victims during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Orange, Calif. Lawyer Mike Reck on Thursday said that's many more than those reported by the Diocese and demanded greater transparency. The Diocese of Orange says the lawyers are trying to re-litigate old claims that the church takes any accusations of abuse "extraordinarily seriously." (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
This photo shows the residence and office of the Archbishop of Agana in Guam on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. The house was listed as one of the non-essential properties owned by the Catholic Church in Guam, which announced on Wednesday that it will file for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy to avoid trial in dozens of lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse by priests and move toward settlements. The funds for future victims claims will come from the sale of non-essential church properties and insurance. (AP Photo/Grace Garces Bordallo)
This Oct. 26, 2018 photo shows Marian Home and Village in Fort Dodge, Iowa. A bishop is vowing to relocate a priest who had been placed in the Iowa retirement home next to a Catholic school, despite a history of sexually abusing boys. The move comes in response to an Associated Press story exposing the church's three-decade cover-up of abuse committed by the Rev. Jerome Coyle. Coyle admitted in 1986 that he had sexually abused approximately 50 boys over the prior 20 years while serving at several parishes in Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
FILE - In this Wednesday Oct. 24, 2018 file photo, a demonstrator holds up protest signs at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. as over 100 people held a rally at the state Capitol Wednesday following the Senate's GOP majority's decision the previous week to leave Harrisburg without voting on a bill that would give victims a two-year window to file lawsuits that would otherwise be outdated. As U.S. Catholic bishops gather for an important national assembly, the clergy sex abuse crisis dominates their agenda. But it's only one of several daunting challenges facing the nation's largest religious denomination. While federal and state law enforcement agencies widen their investigations of abuse, the church finds itself with ever fewer priests and nuns in service. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
Carolyn Fortney, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her family's Roman Catholic parish priest as a child, awaits legislation in the Pennsylvania Capitol to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)
Survivors of child sexual abuse hug in the Pennsylvania Capitol while awaiting legislation to respond to a landmark state grand jury report on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)
Catholic Archbishop Paul Etienne is shown Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, at his office in Anchorage, Alaska. Etienne said the Anchorage Archdiocese has ordered an independent review of sexual abuse claims by reviewing the files of priests and others associated with the archdiocese since it was established in 1966. (AP Photo/Rachel D'Oro)
Three survivors of child sexual abuse, Diana Vojtasek, left, Mary McHale and Taylor Ecker, wear tape over their mouths as they demonstrate in the Pennsylvania Capitol, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. Vojtasek and McHale testified in front of a state grand jury that said more than 300 Roman Catholic priests had abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses and accused senior church officials of systematically covering up complaints. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)
Protesters carry a map of Poland with 255 documented cases of sexual abuse of minors by the country's Catholic priests, as they march in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018, demanding the church to stop protecting pedophile priests. The writing on the banner reads: "Bishop. Hiding Pedophilia is a Crime." (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
A map is presented showing Poland with 255 documented cases of sexual abuse of minors by the country's Catholic priests, during a demonstration in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018. A private foundation in Poland published the map in the latest development pressuring Poland’s church to admit and take responsibility for such abuse cases. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
Manuel Vega, who says he was sexually abused by a priest over a five-year period decades ago, pauses as he talks about his lawsuit against the Vatican, seeking the names of all offenders within the church worldwide, at a news conference in Los Angeles Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. Vega, now 52, reached a settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007, but his attorneys said Thursday that doesn't release the Vatican from responsibility. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, Oct. 3 in federal court in California, accuses the Vatican of placing the Rev. Fidencio Silva-Flores in a position of power at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Oxnard, Calif., and says it should have known he posed a danger to children. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, arrives to the prosecutor’s office in Rancagua, Chile, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. A prosecutor is questioning Ezzati about allegedly covering up years of child sex abuse committed by members of the country’s Catholic Church. (Jorge Loyola/Aton Chile via AP)
An advocate and survivor of sexual abuse, points to the photos of present and former bishops in the Diocese of Orange while accusing them of doing little or nothing on clerical sexual misconduct during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, in Orange, Calif. The Diocese of Orange said in a statement that the firm was trying to re-litigate old claims and the church takes any accusations of abuse "extraordinarily seriously." The diocese issued a report in 2016 saying 14 clergy accused of abuse were removed from ministry. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Bishops attend the opening mass of the German bishops' conference in Fulda, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018 where the bishops will discuss a study on sexual abuse in the Catholic church in Germany. (Arne Dedert/dpa via AP)
FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office shows Father Manuel LaRosa-Lopez. On Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. a third person has accused the Houston-area priest of fondling him when he was a teenager, in a case that has called attention to how high-profile Cardinal Daniel DiNardo's response to sexual abuse within the church. (Montgomery County Sheriff's Office via AP file)
A Catholic woman fills out forms seeking the formal renunciation of her religion in protest of the innumerous cases of sexual abuse by the clergy, in Santiago, Chile, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. The event was organized the Skeptic Association of Chile to support and show people how to formally disaffiliate from the Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
In this Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Gabriel, a sex abuse victim of Rev. Julio Grassi, who did not want to show his face, holds one of four books written by Argentine criminal defense attorney Marcelo Sancinetti, that makes the argument that Grassi is innocent and his victims are lying, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Gabriel said he is still waiting for Francis to acknowledge his pain, given the Supreme Court has now ruled that he indeed was assaulted by Grassi when he was 13. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Parishioners kneel as Providence diocese Bishop Thomas Tobin, right begins Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence, R.I., Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. Tobin called for a day of prayer and penance he called for due to the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Jennifer McDermott)
Children walk past the Antonio Provolo Institute in La Plata, Argentina, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. Authorities in Argentina carried out raids Thursday at a Catholic-run school for youths with hearing disabilities as part of an investigation into alleged sexual abuse of vulnerable children that has shocked the Pope Francis’s homeland. (Santiago Hafford/La Nacion via AP) ARGENTINA OUT - NO PUBLICAR EN ARGENTINA
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Pell was initially charged with orally raping the second boy. But that charge was downgraded to indecent assault when the complainant testified that from his vantage point he couldn't see Pell's penis enter the second boy's mouth.

More than a month later, the complainant testified that Pell pushed him against a cathedral corridor wall after a Mass and squeezed the boy's genitals painfully before walking away in silence.

"Pell was in robes and I was in robes. He squeezed and kept walking," the complainant told the jurors. "I didn't tell anyone at the time because I didn't want to jeopardize anything. I didn't want to rock the boat with my family, my schooling, my life."

The complainant testified that he feared that making such accusations against a powerful church man would cost him his place in the choir and with it his scholarship to prestigious St. Kevin's College.

Pell pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of willfully committing an indecent act with or in the presence of a child under 16 in late 1996 and early 1997.

He did not testify at his trial. But the jury saw a video recording of an interview he gave Australian detectives in Rome in 2016 in which he stridently denied the allegations.

Pell grimaced, appearing incredulous and distressed, waved his arms over his head and muttered to himself as the detectives detailed the accusations that his victim had leveled against him a year earlier.

"The allegations involve vile and disgusting conduct contrary to everything I hold dear and contrary to the explicit teachings of the church which I have spent my life representing," Pell told police.

Richter, Pell's lawyer, told the jury that the prosecution case compounded a series of improbabilities and impossibilities.

He told the jury that Pell could not have "parted" his robes as the complainant had described.

The jury was handed the actual cumbersome robes Pell wore as archbishop. Over his regular clothes, Pell would wear a full-length white robe called an alb that was tied around his waist with a rope-like cincture. Over that, he would drape a 3-meter (10-foot) band of cloth called a stole around his neck. The outermost garment was the long poncho-like chasuble.

More than 20 witnesses, including clerics, choristers and altar servers, testified during the trial. None recalled ever seeing the complainant and the other victim break from a procession of choristers, altar servers and clerics to go to the back room.

The complainant testified that he and his friend had run from the procession and back into the cathedral through a side door to, as Gibson, the prosecutor, said, "have some fun."

Monsignor Charles Portelli, who was the cathedral's master of ceremonies in the 1990s, testified that he was always with Pell after Mass to help him disrobe in the sacristy.

The defense argued that Pell's usual practice was to linger at the cathedral front steps talking to members of the congregation after Mass. But Gibson said there was evidence that Pell didn't always chat outside and had the opportunity to commit the crimes.

The lifting of the gag order comes after Francis charted a new course for the Catholic Church to confront clergy sexual abuse and cover-up, a scandal that has consumed his papacy and threatens the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy at large.

Opening a first-ever Vatican summit on preventing abuse, Francis warned 190 bishops and religious superiors last week that their flocks were demanding concrete action, not just words, to punish predator priests and keep children safe. He offered them 21 proposals to consider going forward, some of them obvious and easy to adopt, others requiring new laws.

But Francis went into the meeting even more weakened and discredited after one of his top advisers was convicted of the very crime he has now decided is worth fighting on a universal scale.

Pell's downfall will invariably tarnish the pope, since Francis appointed Pell economy minister in 2014 even though some of the allegations against him were known at the time.

In October, Francis finally cut Pell loose, removing him as a member of his informal cabinet. Pell technically remains prefect of the Vatican's economy ministry, but his five-year term expires this year and is not expected to be renewed.

___

Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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