Cardinal George Pell could face 50 year prison sentence after conviction for sexually abusing two choirboys

The Vatican has said it will wait for the appeal process to end before considering action against George Pell, an Australian cardinal found guilty of sexually assaulting two altar boys.

Pell, the Holy See’s third most senior figure after the Pope, was found guilty on five charges of sexually abusing two boys under 16 shortly after he conducted Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne 22 years ago. He faces 50 years in prison, and plans to appeal the verdict. 

"It is painful news that, we are well aware, has shocked many people, not just in Australia," Alessandro Gisotti, the Vatican spokesman, said.

“We reiterate the utmost respect for the Australian judicial authorities,” he added. 

“In this respect, we now await the outcome of the appeal process, recalling that Cardinal Pell has reiterated his innocence and has the right to defend himself to the last degree.”

The Oxford-educated prelate, who was archbishop of Melbourne at the time, was accused of exposing himself to the boys in the cathedral sacristy after finding them taking swigs of communion wine.

He told them that were both in trouble, before forcing one of the boys to perform oral sex on him and fondling the boy’s genitals while masturbating.

A year later, he assaulted one of the boys again, pushing him against a wall in a cathedral corridor and squeezing his genitals.

Mr Gisotti said Pope Francis had confirmed restrictions that were already in place against Pell, including banning him from having contact with children “in any way or form” and prohibiting him from conducting Mass.

He was appointed by Pope Francis as his economy minister in 2014, and is the most senior Catholic figure to be convicted of child sex abuse.

As a “prince of the Church”, his fall from grace is a huge embarrassment for the Vatican, which has only just concluded a four-day conference on combating the molestation and rape of children by clergy.

“The conviction marks a turning point in the global abuse crisis in the Catholic Church,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, the director of BishopAccountability.org, a US campaign group that tracks clergy abuse and cover-ups by bishops.

“The jury’s unanimous decision marks the victory of accountability over impunity, and of the rule of civil law over the Vatican’s failed strategy of cover-up.”

The 77-year-old cardinal was convicted back in December, but a strict suppression order meant that Australian media were not allowed to report the verdict and international media were banned from producing online reports that could be viewed in Australia.

The court in Melbourne had ruled that the verdict could affect the outcome of a second trial, involving allegations that Pell sexually assaulted boys in a swimming pool in the town of Ballarat, Victoria, in the late 1970s, when he was a young priest.

That trial was abandoned for lack of evidence, meaning the verdict in the first trial could finally be reported on Tuesday.

Pell was found guilty on one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child under 16. He denied all the charges.

One of the former choirboys died of a heroin overdose five years ago, with his family saying his drug addiction was a direct result of the abuse he had suffered.

The surviving victim reported the allegations to police in 2015 and gave evidence at the trial.

"Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle. Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life," the victim said in a statement.

As Pell left the court building in Melbourne, child abuse survivors yelled “monster” and “burn in hell”.

If Pell’s appeal is successful, it could lead to a retrial.

"Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so," his lawyers said.

His five-year term as the Vatican’s finance minister ended on Sunday, and he has already been dismissed from the so-called C9, a group of cardinals who advise the Pope.

Pell faces a maximum 50 years in prison if his appeal is rejected. He will be sentenced in the next two weeks.

The Vatican conference on addressing child abuse, criticised by victims’ groups for achieving little, was book-ended by high-profile scandals.

Days before the summit began the Vatican defrocked an American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, after he was found guilty of sexually abusing a teenager 50 years ago.

The former archbishop of Washington, 88, became the highest profile Church figure to be dismissed from the priesthood in modern times.