The most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex abuse could face his first night in custody after a sentencing hearing Wednesday that will decide his punishment for molesting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral two decades ago.
A Victoria state County Court jury unanimously convicted Cardinal George Pell in December of abusing the two 13-year-olds in a rear room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 weeks after becoming archbishop of Australia’s second-largest city.
But unusually, Pell wasn’t taken into custody immediately because he had surgery scheduled to have both knees replaced.
Chief Judge Peter Kidd continued Pell’s bail until his sentencing hearing, but warned Pell that did not indicate he would avoid a custodial sentence.
Pope Francis removed Pell as a member of his informal cabinet in October. He had remained prefect of the Vatican’s economy ministry, but his five-year term expired this month, acting Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.
Gisotti tweeted that Pell “is no longer” the Holy See’s economy chief.
Pell faces a potential 50 years in prison for five convictions of sexual penetration and indecent acts involving the boys.
The judge said Pell was guilty of a breach of trust with an element of brutality and had had a sense of impunity. “I see this as callus, brazen offending — blatant,” Kidd said.
The judge will not announce Pell’s sentence on Wednesday, but he has yet to announce a date. Pell’s convictions and details of his crimes had been suppressed by a court order until Tuesday.
Pell faced an abusive crowd as he entered court half an hour before his hearing was scheduled.
“I hope you burn in hell!” one man shouted while pushing against a cluster of police officers trying to shield the cardinal as he walked into the courthouse. “You’re a pedophile! You’re a criminal! You’re a monster!”
Pell had maintained his innocence throughout, describing the accusations as “vile and disgusting conduct.” His lawyers have appealed the convictions and will apply for bail in the Court of Appeal later Wednesday. No date has been set for an appeal hearing.
Sex offenders in Victoria state would normally be sent to prison after they are convicted and while awaiting sentence.
Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter has said a custodial sentence is inevitable.
Prosecutor Mark Gibson said Pell was guilty of serious offenses against vulnerable boys. “The prisoner has shown no remorse or insight into his offending,” Gibson told the court.
Richter said he did not object to police taking a Pell mouth swab to add to a DNA database of serious criminals. Such forensic samples are mandatory for serious crimes.
Gisotti read a statement to reporters Tuesday at the Vatican, saying Francis has confirmed “precautionary measures” already taken against Pell, including a ban on his celebrating Mass in public and “as is the rule, contact in any way or form with minors.”
The victim who testified at Pell’s trial said after the conviction was revealed that he has experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle.” In his statement, the man said it had taken him years to understand the impact the assault had on his life.
The other man died of a heroin overdose his father attributed to the aftermath of the abuse. Neither victim can be named under state law.
The revelations in the Pell case came in the same month that the Vatican announced Francis approved the expulsion from the priesthood of 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.
Australia’s ranking bishop, Mark Coleridge, who delivered the homily at the final Mass of the summit, said Pell’s convictions “shocked many across Australia and around the world, including the Catholic Bishops of Australia.”