SYDNEY — Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic prelate to be convicted of sexual assault, was taken into custody Wednesday to await sentencing by an Australian judge.
At the conclusion of a hearing in Melbourne to consider evidence about the appropriate sentence, Judge Peter Kidd ordered Pell to be held in jail, pending his decision.
Pell did not ask for bail, and it was not offered, which suggests that a prison term is inevitable. Pell bowed to the judge as he was escorted out of the courtroom by security guards while watched by a packed public gallery.
Soon after Pell was taken into custody, the Vatican on Wednesday announced that it opened an investigation after the guilty verdict. If the case progresses, it could lead to canonical punishments, including defrocking.
The 77-year-old Australian priest, who oversaw the Vatican’s finances, was found guilty by a unanimous jury on Dec. 11 of five counts of sexual assault against two 13-year-old choir boys. The verdict was not officially disclosed until Tuesday, when Kidd lifted a suppression order that had failed to stop news from spreading over the Internet and into media outlets.
Kidd said in court Wednesday afternoon that he did not regard the crime, which took place at Melbourne’s grand St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as relatively minor compared with other sexual assaults.
After a Sunday Mass in December 1996, Pell discovered two choirboys who had sneaked into a priests’ changing room, known as a sacristy, at the cathedral and were drinking ceremonial wine, the court was told.
Pell groped one of the boys and placed his penis in the other boy’s mouth, according to evidence given by one of victims, who cannot be named under Australian law.
Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter, asked for a lighter sentence because the conviction was for “a plain-vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating.”
But “there was an element of brutality to this assault,” the judge said. “It was an attack. It spoke to his state of mind that he thought he could do this and get away with it.”
Kidd conceded, however, that Pell’s prospects for rehabilitation are good and that he is unlikely to commit more crimes.
The prosecutor, Mark Gibson, said in court that Pell never showed remorse for his crimes or explained the circumstances of the assaults. “As we know, five or six minutes of abuse can last a lifetime,” Gibson said.
Pell pleaded not guilty and has filed an appeal.
“Cardinal George Pell has not applied for bail today,” his lawyers said in a written statement after Wednesday’s hearing. “He believes it is appropriate from him to await sentencing. Despite the unprecedented media coverage, Cardinal Pell has always and continues to maintain his innocence.”
Seen as the third-ranking cardinal in the Vatican and a member of the pope’s informal cabinet, Pell was a powerful figure in the church and one of the most prominent religious figures in Australian history.
The conviction horrified many Australians. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he plans to revoke the national award known as the Order of Australia, which was given to Pell in 2005, if his appeal is unsuccessful.
Pell was heckled as he walked into the court surrounded by police officers. One man, about three feet away, called him a monster and told him to “rot in hell,” the Age newspaper reported. Others held up critical placards.
Pell’s lawyer complained about the hostile crowds to the judge and listed several prominent people who had provided character references for the Catholic priest, including one John Howard, which is the name of a former Australian prime minister.