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.
“There is always suspicion when you don’t know what is going on.”— Steven Spane, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
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.
As a result of the gag order, international media organizations including Reuters, Associated Press, and The New York Times have avoided writing about the conviction, out of concern that their reporters in Australia could be charged with contempt of court (see update below). The Washington Post, however, ran both a news story on the conviction and a column by media writer Margaret Sullivan, one of the only mainstream publications to do so (it should be noted that the Daily Beast was the first to report the news, and the Post piece was followed by stories at NPR, Slate, The Daily Mail and several Catholic news sites). The Melbourne Herald Sun ran a front page with the word “Censored!” in large type on the day after the conviction was handed down.
After the Post stories were published, executive editor Marty Baron released a statement which read, in part:
This story is a matter of major news significance involving an individual of global prominence. A fundamental principle of The Washington Post is to report the news truthfully, which we did. While we always consider guidelines given by courts and governments, we must ultimately use our judgment and exercise our right to publish such consequential news. Freedom of the press in the world will cease to exist if a judge in one country is allowed to bar publication of information anywhere in the world.
After her column was published, Sullivan got some blowback from Kate Doak, a journalist in Australia who said she has been working on the Pell case and similar Catholic Church-related sexual abuse cases for a number of years. Doak suggested that it was irresponsible of the Post to break the judge’s gag order, because doing so could jeopardize future cases against Pell that are still in the works. The judge’s order was designed (as most similar gag orders in Australia, Britain and Canada are) to limit the amount of information potential jurors might have about a case, so as to avoid poisoning the jury, resulting in a potential mistrial.
In March 2019, an Australian judge sentenced Cardinal George Pell to six years in prison for sexual abuse, with the possibility of parole after three years and eight months. During his public reading of Pell’s sentence, Victoria County Judge Peter Kidd said that the alleged abuses committed by the cardinal had “a significant and lasting impact” on one of the victims, who suffered a series of negative emotions with which he struggled for many years, aggravated by problems of trust and anxiety.
“I would characterize these breaches and abuses as grave,” the judge said during the sentencing, telling Pell: “Your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance.”
After maintaining a media blackout during the trial, Kidd ordered the reading of the sentence to be broadcast live on various television channels, which lasted over half an hour. Pell supporters said the public reading — done in the name of “open justice” — was really another confirmation of the ongoing media campaign against the cardinal, according to Vatican News.
Pell’s supporters have not been few and a number of observers have denounced the trial as a travesty. The former head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, railed against the conviction, calling the accusations “absolutely unbelievable.” As others have done, Müller said that the circumstances surrounding the alleged abuse undermined the plaintiffs’ case, since the incident was purported to have taken place in a public place — the archbishop’s sacristy — following a well-attended Sunday Mass.
“Nobody witnessed it,” the cardinal said, adding that that it would have been very difficult with “all the other persons” presumably in the area after Mass. One could believe such an incident could take place in a private house, he said, but not “in the public cathedral.” “The allegations against him are absolutely unbelievable, it’s impossible. It’s without proof, against all evidence,” Müller said. “If there’s no proof, you cannot condemn a person to 50 years in a fortress,” he continued.
Judging decades-old sex abuse charges with no corroborating evidence risks turning the presumption of innocence into a “legal fiction,” said Canon lawyer Ed Condon, which obliges jurors to choose “between the word of the accuser and that of the accused.” In these cases, “the right to due process is at risk of becoming moot,” Condon said.
The Catholic intellectual George Weigel compared the Pell conviction to the ignominious Dreyfus case, where Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain, was convicted of treason in 19th-century France. “The charge was false; Dreyfus, a Jew, was framed,” Weigel wrote. “His trial was surrounded by mass hysteria and people with no grasp of the facts celebrated when Dreyfus was condemned to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.” Similarly though, Pell’s two trials “were held under an Australian media blackout, irrationality and venom, stoked by media bias, had already done their work,” Weigel noted.
After the official pronouncement of the sentence, Pell was returned to the Melbourne maximum security prison where he is being held in solitary confinement. As former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, Pell is the highest-ranking Catholic figure to be tried and found guilty of the sexual abuse of minors.