Australian Cardinal George Pell, 77, one of the most powerful men in the Roman Catholic Church, is almost certain to face prison after a jury found him guilty of one charge of sexual penetration of a child and four charges of "an indecent act with or in the presence of a child" in the late 1990s. The conviction of Pell, the Vatican treasurer and a close adviser to Pope Francis, will send shockwaves through the church, which is already reeling from accusations of sexual abuse committed by priests worldwide.
Pell is the most senior Catholic official to be found guilty of child sex offenses to date. His conviction brings the escalating international controversy around the abuse of children in Catholic institutions straight to the doors of the Holy See. A court order banning media reporting of Pell's five-week long trial, which began in November 2018, was lifted by Chief Judge Peter Kidd on Tuesday.
The prosecution's case hinged on the testimony of one man, who said Pell sexually abused him and another boy in Melbourne's historic St. Patrick's Cathedral after mass one Sunday. The second victim later died from a drug overdose, having never revealed the abuse to anyone. The surviving accuser can not be identified under Australian law governing sex abuse victims.
In court the accuser told the jury how Pell, then Archbishop of Melbourne, discovered the two choirboys drinking wine in the priest's sacristy, a small room at the back of the cathedral. He claimed Pell forced one of the boys to perform oral sex on him and performed an indecent act on his friend. One month later, the victim said Pell pushed him up against a wall and groped his genitals.
Under Australian law, all details of the first trial, including its existence, were suppressed due to concerns they could prejudice future juries. The court order was lifted after the crown prosecutor chose to not proceed with a planned second trial into further child sex allegations against Pell.
The Vatican has yet to comment on the verdict. Pope Francis quietly removed Pell from his small council of advisors for "reasons of advancing age" in December, before the news of the cardinal's conviction became public.
The conviction comes as the Vatican is taking tentative steps to make amends for decades of abuse by clergy across the world.
At a historic child abuse summit in Vatican City held on Sunday February 26, Pope Francis described paedophile priests as "tools of Satan."
Testifying in a video link to the court during a closed session, the young man (then a boy) at the centre of the allegations described how after mass the boys slipped away from the procession and into the back of the cathedral where they drank some communion wine. Suddenly Pell appeared and demanded to know what they were doing.
"He planted himself in the doorway and said something like, 'what are you doing in here' or 'you're in trouble'. Then he undid his trousers or his belt", the surviving accuser told the jury in a closed session.
Crown prosecutor Mark Gibson later read his testimony to a full court, detailing how Pell cornered the pair, pulled aside his robes and pulled out his penis. The then-Archbishop physically forced one of the boys to perform oral sex on him. According to the accuser's testimony, Pell then instructed him to take off his pants and touched the boy's genitals while masturbating.
The victim said one month later Pell pushed him up against a wall and groped his genitals.
"I didn't tell anyone at the time because I didn't want to jeopardize anything. I didn't want to rock the boat with my family, my schooling, my life. I had no intention back then of telling anyone ever," Gibson said, quoting the victim's testimony.
Pell is due to be sentenced at a separate hearing in March, and while on the surface it would appear that a major victory has been in the battle to uncover the cesspool that is sexual corruption in the Vatican, it just goes to show the degree of dirt that is still to be unearthed in what is arguably the biggest religious institution in the world. There needs to a lot more digging, more in-depth investigation, and a brighter searchlight beamed on the secret activities of clergymen in the Catholic Church: what happens after the priest says "the mass is ended" and people step out of the parish building on Sundays? Who monitors what happens behind the altar and the confessional? How much more grime has the Church chosen to keep underneath the carpet for so long?
One wonders, though, when the spotlight will be thrown on the Catholic church as it operates in Africa. Over the past few decades, there have been (suppressed) reports of sexual misconduct involving priests, deacons and seminarians in Nigeria's major and minor seminaries, as well as the missionary schools around the country. In the late 2000s, the principal of a certain missionary secondary school in Edo State who doubled as the parish priest had a knack for punishing students who failed to tuck in their shirts by forcing them to walk around the school naked. Seminarians have also been known to force themselves on altar boys in the course of their pastoral year at certain chaplaincies. When will these stories be told? When will the cleaning truly begin? These are the questions.
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