Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal George Pell, has been convicted of sexually abusing two choirboys while he was archbishop of Melbourne.
- The abuse occurred at Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.
- Pell pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer has indicated he will launch an appeal against the conviction.
- Pell was convicted in December but details of the trial can only now be made public after a suppression order was lifted.
Cardinal George Pell did little more than shift his gaze to the carpet, barely registering an expression, as he became the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of sexually abusing children.
“Guilty,” the jury foreperson repeated as a woman audibly hyperventilated in the public pews of the courtroom.
It was the end of a five-week trial in the Victorian County Court and more than three days of deliberations by the jury.
And everyone involved in the case, bar the jury, had been here before. The first jury to hear the case had to be discharged, some of them in tears, when they were not able to reach a unanimous decision.
But this time guilty verdicts were returned on all charges — one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child.
Moments earlier, Pell’s legal team had appeared relaxed as they chatted waiting for the court to reconvene.
Now, they sat stony faced at the bar table as the word ‘guilty’ hung in the air.
After the jury filed out, the cardinal’s barrister addressed the judge in uncharacteristically hushed tones, applying to have his client’s bail extended so he could have knee surgery in Sydney.
The judge agreed to grant Pell a short reprieve and instead remand him in custody at his plea hearing.
“This is in no way a sign of the sentence Cardinal Pell will face,” Judge Peter Kidd told the court.
Ahead of his sentencing next week, Pell will spend time behind bars, thousands of kilometres and a literal world away from his former home at the Vatican.
After the judge left the bench, several people moved to commiserate with Pell.
Leaning over the metal railing of the dock, a woman kissed his cheek.
Later, several other people approached to shake his hand.
It was the culmination of a trial which had attracted the attention of high-profile figures like Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer Father Frank Brennan, and former deputy Prime Minister and ambassador to the Holy See Tim Fischer, who each sat through several days of the case.
Pell had stepped down from his position as head of the Vatican’s finances in Rome to voluntarily return to Australia, vowing to clear his name.
Catholic churchgoers had been asked to donate to his legal defence, which was run by a formidable barrister known for using confrontational courtroom tactics.
But 18 months after being charged, it was now likely Cardinal Pell would never return from his leave of absence from the Vatican, let alone retain his rank.
It was one man’s evidence that ended the career of Australia’s highest-ranked Catholic, who had climbed so far up the hierarchy of the Catholic Church he had once been considered a possible pope in waiting.
‘You’re in trouble’
Pell was a year into his job as the head of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy when the former choirboy first spoke to Victoria Police in 2015.
He told police he was sexually abused twice by Pell at St Patrick’s Cathedral in East Melbourne soon after the cardinal was installed as archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.
The most serious allegation was that Pell had forced the choirboy to perform a sex act on him after abusing his friend.
Pell’s victim cannot be identified and his evidence was given in a closed court, which means journalists and the public were excluded.
But his testimony can be gleaned from parts of the transcript read by the prosecution and defence during the trial.
The court was told he had been a student at the prestigious St Kevin’s College in Toorak and sang in the St Patrick’s Cathedral choir as part of a music program run by the school.
After singing at a Sunday mass in late December 1996, he and another choirboy slipped away from the rest of the group as they processed back to their rehearsal room.
He told the court that they came across the priest’s sacristy, a room at the rear of the cathedral used by priests to dress. It was off limits to the choir.
The former choirboy said they “were being naughty kids having a look around” when they came across a bottle of altar wine and started having a few swigs.
But soon, Pell appeared in the doorway, alone and dressed in his archbishop’s robes.
“He … said something like ‘what are you doing in here?’ or ‘you’re in trouble’,” his victim told the trial
The court heard one of the boys asked: “Can you let us go? We didn’t do anything”.
But instead, the then-archbishop pulled one of the boys aside and pushed his head down to his penis.
After a few minutes, he moved onto the other choirboy. Pell forced him to perform oral sex before fondling him as he masturbated.
“I put my clothes back on, I corrected myself,” the former choirboy told the jury, estimating the ordeal had lasted just minutes.
“We got up and left the room and went back into the choral change room area.”
Months later, the former choirboy was abused by Pell again.
After another Sunday mass, the archbishop pushed him against a corridor wall and groped him in a brief assault.
The weight of a secret
For almost two decades, he locked the memories away in what he described as the darkest corner of his mind.
“I had no intention back then of telling anyone ever,” he told the trial.
“I was young and I didn’t really know what had happened to me. I was worried about anything that could jeopardise my schooling.
“And what would I do if I went forward and said such a thing about an archbishop?”
The former choirboy told the court it had taken years to find the courage to come forward.
By that time, he was not making allegations against an archbishop, but a cardinal.
And the other boy who was assaulted had died of a heroin overdose.
The jury was simply told he had died in “accidental circumstances”.
That former choirboy never mentioned the incident and denied being sexually abused when he was asked point blank by his mother several years after the abuse occurred, the court was told.
So it fell to his friend to explain what happened to both of them in the room at the rear of the cathedral in December 1996.
The jury spent two-and-a-half days watching and listening to him on a video link as he gave evidence and was grilled in cross-examination.
It is unlikely the complete transcript of his evidence will ever be made public by the court.
The impossible defence
After the complainant was dismissed, the court was reopened for dozens of other witnesses, all men, to take the stand.
In his opening statements Pell’s defence barrister, Robert Richter QC, had told the jury the allegations were impossible in a practical sense. He would rely on a procession of witnesses to prove that.
“The principal issue will be: is it practically possible … that George Pell was alone with two young choristers … within the 10 minutes or so from the conclusion of the solemn mass?” he asked.
“What is the probability that someone who just happens to walk through an open door and sees two young boys, all of a sudden decides to orally rape them?”
More than a dozen former choirboys were called to the witness box to describe the details of Sunday masses at the cathedral and the orderliness, or otherwise, of the choir’s procession after the service.
It was a reunion of sorts that surely none of them ever expected they would be attending.
None had a clear memory of seeing archbishop Pell robed and alone. None had ever noticed two choirboys peeling away from the main group as they made their way back to the rehearsal room, walking two by two.
But, as former choirboy David Mayes put it, “we were still schoolkids and any chance for disorder we would grab it … chaos kept trying to seep through”.
The adults in the choir had a slightly different recollection, telling the court that strict discipline would be maintained until the boys returned to the choir room to disrobe.
Rodney Dearing, who had a son in the choir, said he would have noticed two boys in their “distinctive” choir robes running off from the procession.
His evidence was supported by choir marshal Peter Finnigan, who had been in charge of supervising the choristers.
But Mr Finnigan told the court that if two choirboys had managed to slip away after mass unnoticed, he would not have known they were missing as they did not take a roll.
After giving his evidence, Mr Finnigan approached the dock and shook Pell’s hand.
It prompted the judge to order the lead investigator to ferry the witnesses behind the bar table on their way to the witness box, to give the dock a wide berth.
As the trial wore on, it was almost possible to forget the cardinal was sitting hunched in the dock, taking reams of notes as graphic details of abuse were discussed in the courtroom.