The Vatican’s third most powerful official has been convicted in Australia on all charges he sexually abused two choir boys there in the late '90s, according to two sources with knowledge of the case.
A unanimous jury returned its verdict for Cardinal George Pell on Tuesday (Australian time) after more than three days of deliberations, the sources said, in a trial conducted under a gag order by the judge that prevented any details of the trial being made public.
Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief and the highest Vatican official to ever go on trial for sex abuse, left Rome in June 2017 to stand trial in Melbourne.
As that trial was about to get underway in June, a judge placed a suppression order on all press coverage in Australia, according to the order reviewed by The Daily Beast. Prosecutors applied for the order and it was granted to “prevent a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice.” That order remains in place in Australia.
That trial, known as “the cathedral trial,” was declared a mistrial earlier this year after a hung jury, the sources say. A retrial began immediately and ended this week with the unanimous verdict.
In a book published last year, journalist Louise Milligan reportedly wrote that Pell was accused by two former choir boys of sexual abuse while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the '90s. The boys sang in the choir at St. Patrick's cathedral and were allegedly abused by Pell in a room in the confines of the church. Pell’s office told The Guardian in 2017 he “repeats his vehement and consistent denials of any and all such accusations.”
A second trial known as “the swimmers trial” is due to get underway early next year, according to sources familiar with the case. That trial is expected to hear evidence that Pell “sexually offended” two men when they were boys playing games in a swimming pool in Ballarat, Victoria. At the time of the allegations, which date back to the '70s when Pell was a priest in the area, according to The Guardian.
A court in Victoria heard in March that Pell, who has denied all of the allegations, would stay in the pool after swimming laps and play with children.
While details from nearly all trials in the U.S. can be made public, Australia’s judicial system is more favorable to defendants where the use of “suppression orders” has increased in recent years, according to The Australian. The gag orders are used for a range of reasons to prevent reporting that could prejudice a case and to restrict details heard in open court being made public.
Steven Spaner, Australia coordinator from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told The Daily Beast he felt frustrated and left “in the dark” following the secrecy surrounding the trial.
“It’s hard to know if there are any shenanigans going on—things the church did that are illegal themselves,” Spaner said. “There is always suspicion when you don’t know what is going on.”
Pell rose through the ranks of the church in Australia after being ordained as a priest in 1966 and then as a bishop in 1987. In 1996, Pope John Paul II appointed him archbishop of Melbourne. He was appointed archbishop of Sydney five years later and then tapped by Pope Francis in early 2014 to be Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican.
The Australian website Broken Rites, which has investigated allegations of sex abuse against the church, published details of a complaint against Pell from an incident alleged to have occurred in the early '60s. An investigator quoted the account of a boy at a Catholic youth camp who accused Pell, then a trainee priest, of touching his genitals. Cardinal Pell has always denied the allegations, which were made in 2002 and investigated by retired Victorian Supreme Court judge Alec Southwell. The result of Southwell’s investigation was that the allegations could not be established and they do not form part of the criminal trials.
Pell, who denies all allegations of misconduct and pleaded not guilty in the cathedral trial, has retained an all-star legal defense team to fight the charges. Among his dream team of lawyers is Robert Richter, who reportedly charges upwards of $11,000 a day for his services. Richter has previously represented a high-profile underworld crime figure accused of murder and a senior Australian politician who was accused of rape.
Richter is being joined by lawyers and clerks from the white-shoe firm Galbally & O’Bryan, plus a second aggressive criminal barrister, Ruth Shann.
Mystery surrounds who is paying Pell’s legal tab, which is likely to run into the millions of dollars.
“It’s highly unlikely his defense is being paid for entirely by supporters or parishioners,” a source with knowledge of the case said. “His legal bills will be astronomical when it’s all over. If it is the Church, the costs will be very well hidden.”
Spaner told The Daily Beast, “The only person who would know for sure is George Pell, who is the treasurer.”
The Vatican has remained defiantly silent since Pell was charged, having released just the one statement when asked if the Pope will take Pell back following the trials.
“The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia regarding His Eminence Cardinal George Pell. Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place.”
A synod on Church abuse early next year attended by top bishops is likely to include discussions of Pell’s future.
Vatican observers note that like all Cardinals in positions of power, Pell did offer his resignation from his official duties when he turned 75 in 2016 so the Pope has it in his possession but has not yet accepted it.
The Vatican did not respond to a request for an official comment on the case. Pell was dismissed from a Vatican advisory group with two other cardinals in October by Pope Francis, the Vatican announced on Wednesday.