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- Australian Catholic cardinal
As Cardinal George Pell ascended the senior ranks of the Catholic Church, he kept secret a dark history of sexually molesting young boys.
In the priest’s sacristy of Melbourne’s imposing St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996, then newly-installed as Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell sexually molested a 13-year-old choirboy.
Exposed and pleasuring himself and still dressed in his ornate ceremonial robes, fresh from presiding over Sunday solemn mass, Pell then raped and abused the boy’s 13-year-old friend.
Pell has always denied the claims, calling them a “product of fantasy” and “absolute rubbish” when interviewed by police in Rome three years ago.
But after a month-long trial and three delays of deliberations, a jury unanimously convicted Pell in December.
The verdict has been suppressed until now for legal reasons.
Physically ailing, the cardinal has been free on bail.
But on Wednesday the man who rose to become Australia’s highest-ranked Catholic, the Vatican’s number three man and a trusted adviser to the Pope, will be taken into custody.
World’s most senior Catholic guilty of sex offences
Pell is the world’s most senior Catholic to be charged with or found guilty of child sex offences.
He stood down from his position as Vatican treasurer to fight the charges and his membership of the Group of Nine Cardinals was suspended by Pope Francis in December.
Pell will be sentenced in March on one charge of sexually penetrating a child and four counts of committing indecent acts with children.
An appeal has already been lodged and Pell continues to maintain his innocence.
Only one of Pell’s victims gave evidence at the trial. He knows the verdict and will hear Pell’s punishment when it’s handed down by County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd.
The other died of a heroin overdose in 2014 having never admitted the abuse he suffered, not even to his parents when they asked if he’d been a victim.
But his absence didn’t matter to the jury who believed the prosecution’s case and his friend’s evidence that the abuse was not the “far-fetched fantasy” Pell’s legal team claimed.
Jurors accepted the memories of the surviving choirboy, now in his 30s, about the awful minutes that followed that mass a week or two before Christmas.
The boys, both on scholarships to the prestigious St Kevin’s College, had been “caught” by Pell swigging sacramental wine in the priest’s sacristy after sneaking away from the post-mass procession.
Pell planted himself in the doorway and scolded them. He then undid his pants and pulled his penis from under his ceremonial robes.
Victim’s testimony details horrid recollection of Pell’s abuse
The court was closed for the survivor’s evidence of the events that followed – his recollection of standing frozen, watching his friend “squirm” as his head was pulled toward Pell’s genitals.
“Then he turned to me,” he said, in evidence quoted later by Senior Crown Prosecutor Mark Gibson SC.
The survivor recalled Pell orally raping him and demanding he then remove his pants, which he did.
Pell fondled the boy’s genitals while masturbating himself. The teen put his pants back on and together the boys rejoined their choir.
Afraid of jeopardising his schooling and not understanding what had happened or “if it was normal”, the survivor didn’t say a word for years.
Not even when, a month or so later, Pell shoved him against a wall in a cathedral corridor and fondled his genitals.
Why victim came forward
“It’s something I’ve carried for the whole of my life … it took a courage much later in life for me to even think about coming forward,” he told the jury.
Pell’s high-profile barrister Robert Richter QC told the jury Pell had returned voluntarily from Rome – where he had diplomatic immunity – to clear his name.
He made the same point months earlier in a first trial that ended with jurors discharged, some sobbing, after being unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
The PowerPoint defence
In a move rarely – if ever – seen in a Victorian court, Mr Richter used a slideshow to lay out the defence case in his closing remarks.
It relied largely on the claim that 10 “independently impossible” events would have to have occurred in the same 10-minute window for the abuse to have occurred unseen.
He had wanted to use a graphic – compared by prosecutors to the Pacman game – to demonstrate his point but permission was denied.
Instead he relied on dot points and bold quotes.
“Only a madman would attempt to rape boys in the priest’s sacristy immediately after Sunday solemn mass,” he declared, with the words projected in big, bold letters on a screen behind him.
Victoria’s Court of Appeal will decide if the jury’s verdict stands.
In the meantime the Catholic Church, tainted by a child sexual abuse scandal in archdiocese worldwide, must deal with its advent at the highest levels of the Holy See.