MELBOURNE/VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - An Australian court has found Cardinal George Pell, one of the highest ranking Vatican officials and a former top adviser to Pope Francis, guilty on five charges of child sexual offences committed more than two decades ago against 13-year-old boys.
The verdict was made public on Tuesday following the lifting of a court suppression order on the trial, after a second abuse case against Pell — the most senior Catholic clergyman worldwide to be convicted for child sex offences — was dropped by the prosecution.
Pell’s lawyers have said they will appeal the verdict, which embarrassed the Vatican because it became public just two days after a major conference on preventing sex abuse. He had pleaded not guilty to all five charges.
In the Vatican’s first response, spokesman Alessandro Gisotti told reporters the conviction was “painful” for many but that the cardinal had proclaimed his innocence and had the right to “defend himself until last level” of judicial process.
At a morning briefing, Gisotti said Pell’s five-year term as Vatican economy minister had expired on Feb. 24. In a tweet late on Tuesday night, Gisotti said Pell “is no longer the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy”.
A jury in the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne found Pell guilty on Dec. 11 last year following a four-week trial.
He was convicted of five sexual offences committed against the 13-year-old choir boys 22 years earlier in the priests’ sacristy of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where Pell was archbishop. One of the two victims died in 2014.
Each of the five offences carries a maximum 10 years in jail. Pell’s lawyers have filed an appeal against the verdict on three grounds, which if successful could lead to a retrial.
“Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so,” Pell’s lawyer, Paul Galbally, said outside the court.
Pell, who remains on bail, left the court on Tuesday without speaking to reporters, who virtually mobbed him as he walked from the courthouse steps to a waiting car.
A child abuse survivor, who identified himself as Michael Advocate as his real name is suppressed under Australian law, shouted to Pell: “Burn in Hell.”
Pell is due to return to court on Wednesday for the start of his sentencing hearing.
Gisotti disclosed hitherto unpublished restrictions that Australian Church leaders had imposed on Pell when the cardinal returned to his native country in June 2017 to defend himself.
The spokesman said Pope Francis “confirmed” measures prohibiting Pell from practising his ministry in public and from having contact with minors “in any way or form”.
The verdict has been made public as the Catholic church tries to deal with a growing child sexual abuse crisis, following scandals in the United States, Chile, Germany and Australia.
The pope ended the conference on sexual abuse on Sunday, calling for an “all out battle” against a crime that should be “erased from the face of the earth”.
The Vatican said in December that Francis had removed Pell, 77, from his group of close advisers, without commenting on the trial.
The cardinal took indefinite leave as head of the Secretariat for the Economy when he returned to Australia to fight the charges, and the department has been run by someone else.
Pell was not called to the stand in the trial.
Instead, the jury was shown in open court a video recording of an interview Australian police held with Pell in Rome in October 2016, in which he strenuously denied the allegations.
The jury was also shown a video recording of the surviving victim’s testimony behind closed doors.
The victim, who was a schoolboy when abused by Pell, on Tuesday asked for his privacy to be respected.
“Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle. Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life,” the victim said in an emailed statement through his solicitor Vivian Waller.
“The process has been stressful and it is not over yet. I need space and time to cope with the ongoing criminal process.”
Mark Coleridge, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, who attended the Vatican conference, said the conviction “has shocked many across Australia and around the world”.
“We pray for all those who have been abused and their loved ones, and we commit ourselves anew to doing everything possible to ensure that the Church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable,” he said in a statement.
(Corrects name of court to County Court of Victoria in paragraph six.)
Reporting by Sonali Paul and Philip Pullella; Editing by Catherine Evans