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Australian Cardinal George Pell convicted of sexually assaulting two choirboys

Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican treasurer and former top adviser to Pope Francis, was found guilty Feb. 26 on five charges of child sexual offenses. (Video: Reuters)

SYDNEY — Cardinal George Pell has been convicted in an Australian court of sexually assaulting two 13-year-old choirboys in the 1990s, in a decision suppressed by a gag order until Tuesday, making him the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to be criminally punished for such offenses.

The suppression order was lifted after prosecutors dropped separate charges against Pell stemming from the alleged assault of young boys. As a result, Pell will not face another trial.

Responding to the outcome of the trial in Melbourne, the Vatican said Tuesday the news was “painful” and indicated that Pell will appeal. The Vatican said Pell has been under “precautionary” orders to refrain from contact with minors and cannot exercise public ministry. Those measures will remain in place, the Vatican said, while it awaits a “definitive assessment of the facts.”

“We await the outcome of the appeals process, recalling that Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the last stage of appeal,” the Vatican said.

Later Tuesday, a Vatican spokesman said on Twitter that Pell no longer held his role as economy minister, widely considered the Vatican’s third most powerful position. It was unclear when that change happened, and the spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. When the charges against Pell were first announced in 2017, he took a leave of absence from that role. Last year, Pope Francis dropped Pell from his de facto cabinet, known as the C-9.

In a separate statement, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said Pell’s conviction has “shocked many across Australia and around the world.”

“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,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane , the episcopal conference president, said in the statement.

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Feb. 26 Cardinal George Pell's conviction was "painful" for many, but that Pell had the right to "defend himself." (Video: Reuters)

The conviction of Pell, determined by an Australian jury in December, stems from two alleged assault incidents, in December 1996 and February 1997, according to prosecutors, after Pell had conducted Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, the city’s grandest.

In the first incident, the Age newspaper reported, Pell caught the two boys drinking sacramental wine in a changing room. He told the boys they were in trouble, exposed himself, pushed one of the boys close to his penis and then placed his penis in the other boy’s mouth, the court was told.

Pell then masturbated while he groped the second boy’s genitals, the court was told.

In the second incident, in 1997, one of the victims testified that Pell had pushed him against a wall in a hallway of the cathedral and squeezed his genitals. He reported the incident to police in 2015. The other boy died several years ago, the Age reported.

A top official in the Catholic Church was convicted of sex abuse last year. Why did Australia ban reporting on it until now?

A jury convicted Pell on Dec. 11 of five charges, including sexual penetration of a child under 16, but media outlets were ordered not to publish the verdict until now. Pell will be forced to return to court Wednesday, when the judge, Peter Kidd, will hear evidence about his sentence. Pell’s bail will be revoked Wednesday, the judge said Tuesday morning, according to the Age.

The living victim, who cannot be identified under Australian law, said he had struggled with shame, loneliness and depression.

“Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon on my life,” he said in a statement issued through his lawyers. “At some point we realize that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.”

He asked reporters to leave him alone and not approach his family, which he said he doesn’t want “swept into the spotlight.”

“I am not a spokesperson about child sexual abuse,” he said. “I am just a regular guy working to support and protect my family as best I can.”

Last week, Pope Francis convened a Vatican summit on tackling clerical abuse to demonstrate the church’s determination to act against abusive priests across the world. While the gathering was unprecedented, it led to no specific new measures — and the church says it will now work to strengthen guidelines across the world aimed at both punishing abusers and any higher-ups who fail to report abusive behavior.

“In abuse and its concealment, the powerful [of the Church] show themselves not as men of heaven but men of earth,” the pope said.

Pell’s case has triggered worldwide interest because of his seniority..

For Australians, the 77-year-old was a highly respected figure among Catholics and politically influential. He led what was considered a groundbreaking response to sexual abuse in the church in the 1990s.

But allegations against him surfaced a couple of years ago, and Pell was charged in June 2017. He denied guilt throughout.

After three days of deliberation, the jury unanimously found Pell guilty of what his defense had described as “deranged falsehoods.”

On Tuesday, one of Pell’s lawyers, Paul Galbally, said the priest continued to maintain his innocence and has lodged an appeal.

“Although originally the cardinal faced allegations from a number of complainants, all charges except for those the subject of the appeal have now been either withdrawn, discharged or discontinued,” Galbally said outside the Melbourne courthouse. “He will not be commenting in the meantime.”

Despite the attempt to suppress news of the conviction last year, news quickly leaked on to the Internet. The Daily Beast published an article that was followed by coverage in The Washington Post. Australian newspapers published front-page articles reporting an important person had been convicted of a serious crime, without mentioning Pell’s name or the specific charges against him.

Pell, who had been considered the Vatican’s finance chief, was given a leave of absence by the pope last year to defend himself against the charges in his home state. Court hearings began in March, and a judge dismissed several charges because of concerns about the credibility of witnesses. The jury could not reach a verdict in the first trial. A second trial led to Pell’s conviction.

With a somewhat haughty manner, many Australians felt he failed to express enough sympathy for the church’s victims. As a young man in Ballarat, he shared a house with a notorious priest, Gerald Ridsdale, who was later found guilty of assaulting more than 60 children.

Harlan reported from Rome.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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