From ABC News (Australia)
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.
“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.
George Pell's conviction for child sex offences is one of biggest court decisions in Australia in recent years, and it's likely to have some major ramifications around the world.
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 proceeded 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.
A prison officer was his only company and his gold ecclesiastical ring, gifted to him by the Pope, was the only indicator of his status.
But his position as one of the Pope’s closest advisers loomed large in the trial from the very beginning.
“Self-evidently the accused man Cardinal George Pell is a very senior member of the Catholic Church,” Judge Kidd had told a group of more than 100 potential jurors on the first day of the case.
They were directed to disqualify themselves from sitting on the jury if they felt they could not be impartial, whether that was because they were Catholic or had strong feelings against the church.
A larger than normal jury pool had been organised as the court anticipated a number of community members would ask to be excused from sitting.
“This trial must not be used as an opportunity to make Cardinal Pell a scapegoat for conduct not contained in the charges or the conduct or failures of the Catholic Church more generally,” Judge Kidd had warned.
A fair trial for a controversial figure
Pell has been described as a lightning rod for outrage over the Catholic Church’s handling of child sexual abuse.
His defence barrister did not shy away from addressing his client’s divisive reputation, even referencing Tim Minchin, who wrote a song to pressure Pell to return to Australia to front the child abuse royal commission in person.
“Some of you might well have heard a song by a fellow called Tim Minchin, which went viral and made news … entitled ‘Come back Cardinal Pell’,” Mr Richter told the jury.
“Well he came back and he came back of his own accord to clear his name.”
The eyes of the world were in court to witness him try.
Journalists from international media outlets flew in to Melbourne to cover what was the most significant sexual abuse trial of a senior Vatican official that the world has ever seen.
New York Times Australia bureau chief Damien Cave was among them and said the trial was being closely watched all over the globe despite a court-imposed cloak of silence.
A suppression order banned all reporting on the trial until the delivery of a verdict in another case involving a separate set of charges.
That case related to allegations Pell had indecently assaulted two boys in a Ballarat swimming pool in the 1970s when he was a priest in the regional Victorian city.
But those charges have now been dropped.
Cave said the suppression order was an enormous surprise and posed a huge challenge to publications more used to the open style of US justice.
“The idea that one judge in a Melbourne court could really define what the world can read about a figure of such global significance I think is a real shock to the world,” he said.
Despite a suppression order banning reporting of the trial, the Catholic community has already been grappling with the verdict and trying to make sense of it with the George Pell they know.
Former priest and Catholic historian Paul Collins described it as one of the worst-kept secrets in Australia and said Catholics all over the country had been talking about it for weeks.
“A lot of Catholics still do not accept Cardinal Pell’s guilt, and I’m not just talking about conservative Catholics,” Mr Collins said.
“Catholics in Australia are punch-drunk at the present moment … we’ve been through more revelations and crises than you could possibly ask any community to go through.”
He said the fact a man of Pell’s standing and influence in the church could be a paedophile had shaken people to their core.
“This is a man who has virtually dominated the Catholic Church for the last 20 years. This is a man who has had enormous influence on the appointment of bishops, and perhaps one of the reasons why the bishops have been such abject failures in leadership is because of the type of people that Pell has put forward to Rome for appointment to the Episcopate,” he said.
“We are in a way … gobsmacked by the situation that we find ourselves in.”
The Melbourne defence
In December 1996, when the abuse occurred, Pell was an ascendant force in the Catholic Church.
He had been archbishop of Melbourne for four months, and in that time announced a scheme to handle claims of child sexual abuse by clergy within the archdiocese.
Pell has often cited his record as the first Australian archbishop to deal with the child abuse crisis and repeated the claim again when he was interviewed by police in 2016.
The interview was played in the trial and, after weeks of silence, the voice of Pell filled the court.
It was a characteristically forceful denial of the allegations in their entirety as Pell described them as the “products of fantasy”.
“Oh, stop it,” Pell told the detective interviewing him disdainfully. “What a load of absolute and disgraceful rubbish.”
The pair were sitting across a table from each other in a conference room at the Hilton Hotel at a Rome airport, less than an hour’s drive from Vatican City, where Pell oversaw the church’s finances.
The Cardinal sucked on a lolly as he was shown photos of the choirboys involved.
“I didn’t know any kids in the choir in ’96,” he said as he handed the photos back. As the detective began running through dates and names significant to the case, Pell uncrossed his arms to take notes of the conversation.
“The most rudimentary interview of staff and those who were choirboys … would confirm that the allegations are fundamentally improbable and most certainly false,” Pell had told the detective.
Pell reminded the detective that he was the “first person in the Western world to create a church structure to recognise, compensate and help heal the wounds inflicted by sexual abuse of children at the hands of some in the Catholic Church”.
The Melbourne Response capped compensation payments at $50,000 and was criticised by complainants for its lack of independence and consistency in dealing with claims.
But it did beg the question: would an archbishop who had established a scheme to compensate victims then sexually abuse two children in his cathedral just months later?
As the video recording of Pell’s police interview was played to the jury, long-time advocate Chrissie Foster watched on from the public gallery.
Two of her daughters were raped by paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell at a parish in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s. At the time the Catholic Church was aware O’Donnell was abusing children — and had been since 1958.
She and her late husband Anthony dealt with Pell from 1996 as one of the first families to go through the Melbourne Response.
Ms Foster said she had taken him at face value, as an archbishop of the Catholic Church, but had been blindsided by his combative response.
She said Pell had seemed angrier than they were and challenged them to prove their claims in court.
“Pell told us to take our evidence to court, prove it in court, ‘hope you could substantiate what you’re saying’, because of course, there is no proof. What proof is there? My five-year-old did not take a video camera with her when O’Donnell took her to there, and video it to say, ‘Ah, here’s the proof’.
“So he was using those words, knowing that we could not argue or produce any evidence, nothing. Just one word against the other. So it was extremely upsetting and disappointing. And we got nowhere.
“Now I look at it and I think, my goodness, this is why he was trying to shut us down then,” she said.
Holes in the defence
Almost a fortnight into his trial, Pell’s right-hand man at the cathedral was called to give evidence.
Described by some witnesses as Pell’s shadow or bodyguard, parish priest Monsignor Charles Portelli was the archbishop’s master of ceremonies and required to remain by Pell’s side when he was at the cathedral.
Monsignor Portelli gave evidence that Pell was using the priest’s sacristy in 1996 because workmen had lacquered the drawers closed in the archbishop’s sacristy during restoration works at the time.
He said he could remember Pell’s first few masses as archbishop specifically because they were “ironing out bugs in the system”.
It was after one of those masses that the abuse was alleged to have occurred.
Monsignor Portelli told the jury that archbishop Pell would have greeted members of the congregation on the front steps of the cathedral immediately after those masses as there were people who wanted to meet him.
He could not remember a time when he did not return to the sacristy with Pell to help him disrobe.
But Monsignor Portelli said there were rare occasions when he did not follow Pell into the sacristy and instead returned to the sanctuary to ensure the sermons were ready for an afternoon function.
“I am not aware he was ever alone in the sacristy,” he told the jury.
The sacristy was described by a witness as a “hive of activity” after mass.
Altar servers were also coming in and out as they ferried valuable items from the sanctuary, the trial was told.
But the prosecution had not planned to call any as witnesses, until two were handed over by the defence with potentially crucial evidence.
The first was a man who had kept a diary since 1973, which provided a record of every mass he had attended at the cathedral, the role he had played in it and the name of the celebrant.
Before he gave evidence, the prosecution had not been able to specify the Sunday mass after which the abuse was alleged to have occurred.
But with Jeffrey Connor’s diary, it became clear Pell had only celebrated two masses at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996, narrowing the possible dates of the offending to December 15 and 22.
Mr Connor told the court he had been asked about his diary by a former altar server who had been in contact with Pell’s legal team.
The other witness, criminal barrister Daniel McGlone, had gone to university with one of Pell’s lawyers and contacted him after learning about the allegations through “general Chinese whispers” among barristers.
Mr McGlone told the court that the allegations were at odds with his memories of masses at the cathedral, and he remembered introducing his mother to archbishop Pell on the front steps of the cathedral, after the archbishop celebrated his first Sunday mass at the venue.
He said it was an interaction he would never forget because when archbishop Pell had told his mother ‘you must be very proud of your son’, she had responded by saying, ‘I don’t know about that’.
The evidence placed Pell on the front steps when the alleged abuse was meant to have been occurring, effectively giving him an alibi for one of the Sundays when the abuse could have occurred.
But Mr McGlone’s memory had some deficiencies.
He gave evidence that particular Sunday mass had been the first time he had served archbishop Pell, until the prosecutor confronted him with a photo depicting him serving the archbishop at a Saturday night mass a week earlier.
‘One word against the other’
After the last prosecution witness gave his evidence, Pell’s barrister announced the defence would not be calling any evidence of their own.
It meant Pell would not testify — the recording of his interview would be the only time the jury would hear from him.
Instead, the defence relied on the parade of witnesses who had thrown into question whether Pell’s offending could possibly have happened unnoticed.
As the prosecutor rose to his feet to give his closing address, it was clear there would be no smoking gun.
“Upon proper scrutiny of the evidence, [the complainant’s] account withstands those suggested improbabilities or impossibilities because the evidence suggests … it occurred.”
Mr Gibson pulled the threads of evidence together to argue the abuse occurred during a five to six-minute hiatus in activity in the sacristies after mass. A few minutes when no-one would have ventured into the priest’s sacristy.
He told the jury that while archbishop Pell might have developed a routine of greeting parishioners on the steps after mass, the abuse had occurred after one of his first services before any practices had developed.
“You heard a number of choristers speak about [the sacristy] being an off-limits area, and yet [the complainant] is able to describe … the room,” Mr Gibson said.
“You wouldn’t know the layout of the room … that the wine was stored there, without having been there … when these things occurred.”
The complainant was attacked by Pell’s defence barrister as a liar.
“The process of cleaning up ... meant that the priest’s sacristy was only ever momentarily unattended.”
In an effort to close the door on any doubt, Mr Richter referred to a slide show presentation that included headings like: Only a madman would attempt to rape boys in the priest’s sacristy immediately after Sunday solemn mass.
“All you had was a sequence of possibilities … apart from [the complainant], of course, who told you stories that had so many in-built inconsistencies and changes that you would not hang a chicken on that, let alone decide a man’s fate,” he told the jury.
Ultimately, it came down to whether the jury accepted Pell’s complainant beyond reasonable doubt.
After two-and-a-half days of watching and listening to his evidence, they did.
The guilty verdict made the complainant a victim. And Australia’s most powerful Catholic a convicted child sex offender.
It is expected he will appeal against that conviction, and it will be months before an outcome is known.
But it will not stop Pell from being sentenced next week, and in the meantime it is likely the cardinal will await his fate from a jail cell.
After the suppression order was lifted, the victim released a statement via his lawyer.
“Thank you for your interest in this case,” he said.
“Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle. Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact on my life.
“At some point we realise that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.
“I would like to thank my family near and far for their support of me, and of each other.
“I need space and time to cope with the ongoing criminal process. I understand this is a big news story but please don’t reveal my identity.”
Pell also released a statement through his lawyers.
“Cardinal George Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so. An appeal has been lodged against his conviction and he will await the outcome of the appeal process,” the statement said.
“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.
“He will not be commenting in the meantime.”