Two months after Cardinal George Pell was convicted of sexually abusing boys, a judge has decided the Vatican’s third most powerful official will not face a second trial on similar charges in his home country of Australia.
The decision means that a suppression order that kept the proceedings shrouded in secrecy has been lifted and Pell, 77, will now be sentenced in the original case. Reporters who have attended the proceedings without being able to report them now say the court heard testimony that Pell forced one choir boy to perform oral sex on him after mass and that he masturbated in front the other victim while he groped and fondled him.
One of the two victims died of a drug overdose several years ago which prompted the other victim, who testified in court against the cardinal, to come forward.
Cardinal Pell will be remanded in custody on Wednesday to await sentencing. He faces up to 50 years in prison.
The development comes as Pope Francis faces global criticism for his mishandling of clerical sexual abuse, including his reluctance to declare zero tolerance for predators and their enablers at a landmark summit in Rome this month.
The Vatican spokesman said on Tuesday that it would withhold final judgement until Pell exhausted his appeals, calling the conviction “ painfulnews that, we are well aware, has shocked many people, not only in Australia.”
“Cardinal Pell has reiterated his innocence and has the right to defend himself to the last degree. Waiting for final judgement, we join the Australian bishops in praying for all the victims of abuse,” the statement reads. “Waiting for the definitive verification of the facts, Cardinal Pell is forbidden as a precautionary measure the public exercise of the ministry and, as a rule, contact in any way or form with minors.”
Pell, head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Economic Affairs, is the highest-ranking prelate to face sexual abuse allegations dating back decades.
In June, as his trial was about to get underway in Melbourne, a judge barred all press coverage in Australia at the request of prosecutors who said publicity could prejudice the jurors.
In the first case—known as the Cathedral Trial because of where the abuse allegedly happened—Pell was accused of sexually abusing two choir boys in the 1990s. He was found guilty of one count of penetrating a child under 16 and four counts of indecent acts with a child under 16.
A mistrial was declared in October due to a hung jury that reportedly was leaning 10-2 in favor of the cardinal. But in December, he was found guilty of five criminal counts on retrial. “Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon on my life,” the surviving victim said in a statement issued through his lawyer Vivian Waller on Tuesday. “At some point we realize that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.”
The Daily Beast was the first to report the news of Pell’s conviction by “geo-blocking” the story from Australian audiences in accordance with the suppression order.
Pell faced additional charges in a second case known as the Swimmers Trial because the alleged offenses took place in a swimming pool and clubhouse.
The trial was set to begin after the court sentenced Pell in the Cathedral case, but has been abandoned due to lack of admissible evidence.
A Vatican source close to Pell’s defense team told The Daily Beast that the prosecution argued that they had lost a key witness, which led them to agree that the trial should be scuttled.
Pell, who has been free on bail, has maintained his innocence throughout and is said to be appealing his conviction.
Despite promises made by Pope Francis to hold prelates on every level accountable for their part in abuse, Pell has not yet been sanctioned or defrocked. He wasn’t even removed as head of the Vatican Secretariat of the Economy during his trial and merely remained “on leave of absence” from the No. 3 post in the Roman Curia. However, in December, after the conviction, he was removed from the so-called C-9 committee of nine papal advisers.
The pope has used strong language to condemn abuses—calling them “tools of Satan” during his closing remarks at the summit on Sunday—but has been criticized for not backing up his words with action.
When asked about Pell on the sidelines of the weekend summit, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge told The Daily Beast he would not comment due to the Australian gag order. On Tuesday, he expressed shock to reporters in the lobby of his the residence where he is staying in Rome. “The same legal system that delivered the verdict will consider the appeal that the cardinal’s legal team has lodged,” Coledridge said. “Our hope, at all times, is that through this process, justice will be served. In the meantime, 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.”
Coleridge was a central figure in the summit, delivering the homily during the closing mass on Sunday. As the president of the Australian Bishops Conference, he is the authoritative figure responsible for Pell's future in the church.
He will have to make a recommendation to Francis and provide the Vatican Tribunal with evidence from his home country. It is understood that he and the pope did discuss Pell privately during the summit.
“We have shown too little mercy, and therefore we will receive the same, because the measure we give will be the measure we receive in return,” Coleridge said during his homily. “We will not go unpunished.”
Francis told reporters on board the papal plane on the return from World Youth Day in Poland in 2016 that he would not judge Pell until the judicial process is over, and he refused to comment on the case after news of Pell’s conviction surfaced.
Survivors of clerical sex abuse have called for the removal of Pell’s title of cardinal and for his laicization because, as a convicted sexual predator, he should no longer be a representative of the Catholic church or be allowed to continue in ministry. Former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was forced to resign last summer and was laicized in February after allegations that he sexually abused a 16-year-old boy in a confessional in New York more than 30 years ago.
The gag order in the case frustrated abuse victims and their advocates who were keenly interested in the outcome.
“Suppression of information is a tool of the powerful,” Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told The Daily Beast. “Suppression of information must not be a means for an accused criminal to avoid justice for other crimes.”
Steven Spaner, Australia coordinator for SNAP, told The Daily Beast he was “joyous” at the news of Pell’s conviction, which he said would be welcomed by survivors worldwide.
“The fact that Pell was convicted in the first trial is an amazing accomplishment. He may be the winner in the contest for the highest-ranking prelate to go to jail,” he said.
“Victims will see that justice is at long last coming to them. The survivors have always wanted their day in court and in Australia they finally had their day in court.”