Australian Cardinal George Pell, often referred to as the Vatican’s third-in-command, has been convicted of sexually assaulting two altarboys in the 1990s, the Washington Post reports. The court’s decision, initially suppressed by a court-ordered gag order, makes Pell the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to be criminally punished for committing child sexual abuse.

Australian Cleric Convicted Of Child Sexual Abuse

An Australian jury found in December that Pell abused two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral in 1996. The trial was heard twice last year because a first jury failed to reach a verdict. The second jury unanimously convicted Pell on one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16. Pell had pleaded not guilty to the charges, and continues to maintain his innocence.

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Allegations Heard In Court

At trial, a jury for the County Court of Victoria heard that, while he was the Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell found two 13-year-old boys in rooms of St. Patrick’s Cathedral after a mass. He allegedly told the boys that they were in trouble for drinking communion wine, then forced them to perform sex acts. Pell allegedly exposed himself to the boys, pushed one of them close to his penis and then placed his member in the other boy’s mouth. He then continued to masturbate while groping the second boy’s genitals, the court heard.

Jurors were also told that Pell abused one of the boys again in 1997. At trial, one of the victims testified that Pell pushed him against a wall in a hallway of the cathedral and squeezed his genitals. Tragically, the other victim committed suicide several years ago. The alleged incidents took place in December 1996 and February 1997.

The jury was unconvinced by the arguments of Pell’s defense council, who called the allegations “deranged falsehoods” manufactured by the victims.

Jury Decision Suppressed By Gag Order

While the verdict against Pell was decided in December 2018, the result could not be reported or publicly announced until now for legal reasons. In May 2018, a judge issued an order preventing any reporting on Pell’s conviction, because it would taint the results of a separate trial against the cleric, legal proceedings which have now been abandoned.

This second trial, the charges from which have been dropped, was to hear evidence that Pell sexually abused young boys during the 1970s, but prosecutors withdrew the case on Tuesday for lack of evidence. Despite the gag order, news about the conviction quickly leaked, with stories reported in the Daily Beast and the Washington Post soon after the decision.

Pell, who is scheduled to face a sentencing hearing on Wednesday, has already appealed the verdict.

Vatican Responds To “Painful” Conviction

The Vatican confirmed Pell’s appeal in statements on Tuesday, saying the news was “painful.” The Holy See also said that Pell has been under “precautionary” orders to avoid contact with minors and has been barred from exercising public ministry. Those restrictions remain in place as the Vatican awaits the results of Pell’s appeal. The Vatican says it is awaiting a “definitive assessment of the facts,” writing, “we await the outcome of the appeals process, recalling that Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself.”

Sexual Abuse Crisis Engulfs Church

Worldwide, the Catholic Church is facing an extraordinary amount of allegations around childhood sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy, along with claims that the Vatican has covered up the misconduct for decades.

The crisis led Pope Francis to hold an unprecedented summit on pedophilia at the Vatican last week, marking perhaps the first time the Church has openly acknowledged the widespread sexual abuse of children.

While Francis has promised to take action on child sexual abuse in recent days, no concrete plans have yet been announced. On Sunday, he called child sex abusers within the Church “tools of satan.” The Church says it will work to strengthen guidelines against abuse across the world, though many advocates contend that the institution is not doing enough.

Who Is Cardinal George Pell?

Cardinal Pell was serving as the Vatican’s economy minister when the charges against him were first announced in 2017, after which he took a leave of absence. His five-year term as economy minister is set to expire this year, and is unlikely to be renewed. In 2018, Pope Francis pushed Pell off his cabinet, referred to as the C-9.

Long a supporter of traditional conservative values, Pell was called to the Vatican in 2014 to manage the Vatican’s finances. Despite his prominence, Pell’s career has been plagued by allegations that he covered up cases of sexual abuse, and later, that he himself was an abuser.

Survivor Asks For Privacy

In a statement released on Tuesday, Pell’s surviving victim, who has not been named publicly due to Australian law, said the case was stressful and “not over yet.” The survivor said he experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle” due to the abuse. “Like many survivors,” he said, “it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life.” Through his attorneys, the survivor commented, “at some point we realize that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.”

Despite the prominence of Pell’s conviction, the survivor asked reporters to leave him and his family alone. “I am not a spokesperson about child sexual abuse,” he told the media. “I am just a regular working to support and protect my family as best I can.”