MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Former Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in jail yesterday for sexually abusing two choir boys in Melbourne in the 1990s, and will be registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
County Court of Victoria Chief Judge Peter Kidd, who handed down the sentence in a live television broadcast, said there was a real possibility that at age 77, Cardinal Pell could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Cardinal Pell, a former top adviser to Pope Francis, is the most senior Catholic to be convicted for child sex offences.
His downfall brings to the heart of the papal administration a scandal over clerical abuse that has ravaged the Church’s credibility in the United States, Chile, Australia and elsewhere over the last three decades.
“Viewed overall, I consider your moral culpability across both episodes to be high,” Judge Kidd told the packed court room.
Cardinal Pell, who appeared in court without a priest’s collar for the first time during the case, showed no emotion during the sentencing hearing that ran for more than one hour. He has maintained his innocence and has filed an appeal that is scheduled to be heard in June.
The offences against two 13-year-old boys took place after Sunday mass in late 1996 and early 1997 in a room and a corridor at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where Cardinal Pell was archbishop.
One of the victims died in 2014. The other victim, who testified and was cross-examined at the trial, issued a statement through his solicitor saying he found it hard to take comfort in the verdict for now.
“Being a witness in a criminal case has not been easy. I am doing my best to hold myself and my family together,” said the victim, who cannot be identified under Australian law protecting the identity of sex abuse victims.
During the trial the victim described how Cardinal Pell had exposed himself to them, fondled their genitals and masturbated and forced one boy to perform an oral sex act on him.
Cardinal Pell was found guilty by a jury on four charges of indecent acts and one of sexual penetration. He had faced a maximum of 10 years in jail for each charge.
“Cardinal Pell, I find beyond reasonable doubt that, on the specific facts of your case, there was a clear relationship of trust with the victims, and you breached that trust and abused your position to facilitate this offending,” Judge Kidd said.
During his trial, Cardinal Pell’s own lawyer described the burly 1.9 metre tall cardinal as the “Darth Vader” of the Catholic Church.
Judge Kidd said that as Cardinal Pell had maintained his innocence, which was his right, he had not shown remorse or contrition for his actions and that his sentence reflected that.
After the sentence was handed down, Cardinal Pell signed paperwork related to his registration as a sex offender, bowed to the judge and then, aided by a walking stick, was escorted out of the court by five corrections officers.
His fate within the church has yet to be decided. The Vatican has said it will not comment on the case until after the appeal.