MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison by an Australian judge Wednesday for sexually assaulting two boys in the 1990s, making him the most senior Catholic official to be imprisoned in the worldwide wave of abuse that has blighted the church for the past several decades.
Dressed in an open black shirt, gray jacket and black trousers, Pell blinked but otherwise didn’t react as the judge told him that he would probably spend a substantial portion of the rest of his life in prison.
Pell will be eligible for parole in three years and eight months, and he will be placed on a register of sexual offenders for the rest of his life.
His five convictions carried a maximum possible penalty of 10 years each. Chief Judge Peter Kidd said Pell’s age — he is 77 — was a major factor in the sentence.
He also took into account Pell’s great power over the two boys, who were required to sing at Pell’s cathedral as part of their scholarship to a private Catholic school, and the prelate’s lack of remorse. Pell pleaded not guilty, did not give evidence at his trial and is appealing the verdict.
Some church victims complained Kidd was far too lenient.
“To give out such a light sentence is just insulting to the victims and no deterrence to future pedophiles,” said Michael Advocate, a 52-year-old who said he was abused at his Catholic boarding school in the late 1970s.
Pell’s conviction for fondling one 13-year-old boy and forcing another 13-year-old to perform oral sex on him at St. Patrick’s, Melbourne’s grandest cathedral, in 1996 shocked Catholics in Australia and worldwide.
Pell behaved with “staggering arrogance” when he caught the boys who had sneaked into a change room after Mass to drink sacramental wine, the judge said. “It was a brazen and forcible sexual attack upon the two victims,” he said.
During the sentencing, Kidd emphasized that he was not holding Pell responsible for the church’s broader problems.
“It is vital the community understands that you are not to be made a scapegoat for any failings, or perceived failings, of the Catholic Church,” he said to Pell, who showed no emotion and did not look at the judge. “To other victims who may be present, this sentence is not, and cannot be, a vindication of your trauma.”
One of the victims is now dead. The other, who cannot be legally identified, said he appreciates that the court recognized that he was assaulted but was waiting to see whether Pell’s appeal would succeed.
“It is hard for me to allow myself to feel the gravity of this moment,” he said in a statement. “It is hard for me, for the time being, to take comfort from this outcome. I appreciate the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child. However, there is no rest for me.”
The lawyer who represented the dead victim’s father, Lisa Flynn, said he regarded the sentence as inadequate and would continue to fight for justice.
“Today is the start or a part of a long journey for many victims of abuse around the country,” the lawyer said. “For many, the battle against the Catholic Church has just begun.”
Kidd allowed the sentencing to be broadcast live on television. Courtroom broadcasts are rare in Australia, and the decision might have been an effort by the court to dispel a perception that Pell, 77, received special protection when the court imposed an Internet-wide gag order on his trial and guilty verdict. That order was defied by The Washington Post and other news outlets.
At the end of the sentencing, Kidd said: “If Cardinal Pell could be taken away, please.”
Pell bowed his head to the judge, then walked slowly out of the packed courtroom, with the help of a wooden cane and escorted by five police officers.
Pell, who oversaw the Vatican’s finances, is one of the most senior Australian religious figures in history. Since the conviction, a powerful network of allies and supporters has emerged to suggest that he may have been a victim of a miscarriage of justice.
“Should the appeal fail, I hope and pray Pell, heading for prison, is not the unwitting victim of a nation in search of a scapegoat,” Frank Brennan, a prominent Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, wrote in the newspaper the Australian.
Victims and victims’ advocates expressed disappointment that the integrity of the legal system was being questioned after Pell was found guilty in a unanimous verdict by a 12-member jury overseen by a senior judge.
While one of Pell’s victims died several years ago of a heroin overdose, the other said he had experienced shame, loneliness and depression.
The choirboys’ abuse was first exposed by journalist Louise Milligan, who had spoken to one of the victims and briefly mentioned the abuse in a longer television report in July 2016. She later published a book, “The Cardinal,” that detailed Pell’s rise through the church hierarchy and the allegations against him.
Milligan, who was criticized by some Catholics for her reporting, sat in the front row of the courtroom on Wednesday, facing the judge.
“That’s the thing about these cases,” she said in an interview afterward. “He has to live with this for the rest of his life, and it’s a horrible crime and no sentence will ever make up for that.”
After Pell was found guilty, Robert Richter, his lead attorney, told the judge that the assault was “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case.”
The comment by Richter, one of Melbourne’s leading criminal defenders, was regarded by many victims of sexual abuse as trivializing the psychological harm they suffered at the hands of priests.
Richter had to be shielded by police guards when he left the courthouse on Wednesday, surrounded by a mob of journalists and victim advocates, some of whom yelled abuse.
A government-ordered inquiry into sexual abuse in Australia last year calculated that 4,444 people reported allegations of child sexual abuse to Catholic authorities between 1980 and 2015, and that 7 percent of Catholic priests over sixty years were accused of abuse.