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Senior Vatican cleric sentenced for sex crimes in Australia

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Senior Vatican cleric sentenced for sex crimes in Australia
A file picture of the Vatican City. Photo: DPA
09:31 CET+01:00
Previously the third-most powerful man in the Catholic Church, Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of sexually abusing children in a historic case.

Australian Cardinal George Pell will spend his first night behind bars today following his historic conviction for child sex crimes, capping an extraordinary fall from grace for one of the most powerful men in the Catholic Church.

Once among Pope Francis' closest advisers and the most senior Catholic clerics ever found guilty of child sex crimes, Pell returned to court for a pre-sentencing hearing a day after his conviction was made public on Tuesday.

READ ALSO: Pope compares child sex abuse to 'human sacrifice' at landmark Vatican summit

The 77-year-old is facing up to 50 years' jail after being convicted on five counts of sexual and indecent assault of two choirboys in the sacristy of Saint Patrick's Cathedral in 1996-97, shortly after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne.

The Vatican said yesterday that it has the "utmost respect" for the Australian justice system following the "painful news" of the conviction.

"We reiterate the utmost respect for Australian judicial authorities. In the name of this respect, we now await the outcome of the appeal process," Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.

Protesters in Rome earlier this month denounced the "wall of silence" surrounding abuse in the Church. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

A later Vatican statement said it had opened its own investigation into Pell's conduct, which could result in a canonical trial and his eventual expulsion from the priesthood.

Gisotti announced on Twitter that Pell had been removed from his position as chief of Vatican finances, the third-most powerful position in the Church.

Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to manage the Vatican finances in 2014, and was one of the pontiff's closest advisors. Such appointments usually have a five-year term.

Pell was found guilty in December of assaulting the two choirboys, but the verdict was only revealed Tuesday after a second trial against him was abandoned by prosecutors, allowing a gag order to be lifted.

Pell, who has lodged an appeal against the verdict, will be sentenced on March 13. His lawyers earlier Wednesday withdrew an application for bail following his conviction, saying the cleric "believes it is appropriate for him to await sentencing".

READ ALSO: Church files on paedophile priests 'destroyed', cardinal admits

At Wednesday's hearing, Chief Judge Peter Kidd blasted Pell's behaviour at Saint Patrick's as "callous, brazen offending".

"I think it did involve breach of trust... he exploited two vulnerable young boys. They were entrusted into the care of the church... and the person who stood at the top of that was your client," he said.

Arguing that Pell should receive a substantial punishment, Crown Prosecutor Mark Gibson said the cleric had "shown no remorse" nor "taken responsibility for his actions". 

"There has been a breach of trust... Cardinal Pell was the driving force...and in charge of the cathedral, and these choristers were cogs in the cathedral wheel," Gibson said.

But defence lawyers issued a statement following the hearing insisting that "despite the unprecedented media coverage, Cardinal Pell has always and continues to maintain his innocence.”

"Like any person he has the right to pursue his legal rights and will do so."

Pell's barrister, Robert Richter, argued in court for a short prison sentence, saying that even if Pell had committed the crimes, they were no more than a "plain vanilla sexual penetration case where a child is not volunteering".

Pell's appeal will be based on three grounds -- that the jury verdict was unreasonable, that there were issues with how the jury was formed and that the defence had not been allowed to show jurors an animation illustrating the movements of people in the cathedral on the day of the alleged assault.

Criminal law expert Jeremy Gans of the University of Melbourne told AFP the judges could question the jury's conclusions based on the fact that the case was based on only one person's - the surviving victim's - testimony.

The other choirboy, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, had never told his parents he was abused.
The Catholic Church could face a civil suit from the father of the deceased victim, who said via his lawyer Tuesday that the cleric had "blood on his hands".

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