Card. George Pell convicted of sexual abuse of minors in the sacristy

The cardinal risks 50 years in prison. The defense claims charges "an invention". The trial had been conducted with two juries: the first had failed to reach a verdict. Card. Pell announces appeal against the sentence.

Sydney (AsiaNews) - Card. George Pell, former Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy at the Vatican, has been convicted of having sexually abused two children while he was Archbishop of Melbourne.

The sentence was handed down last December, but for legal reasons was published today.

According to charges, in 1996 Pell, then archbishop of just one year, would have abused one first, then the other of the two young choristers in the sacristy of the cathedral, after having removed the vestments. Another time, one of the two young singers was abused, always at the end of Mass in the cathedral.

Last year the jury heard the testimony of only one of the survivors, a certain Michael; the other died in 2014. "Michael" reported Card. Pell in 2015.

In 2014, the cardinal had been appointed by Pope Francis as head of the Vatican economy, engaged in rationalizing state expenditures and avoiding the use of the Vatican bank for money laundering operations.

In 2017 he asked to return to Australia in order to defend himself. Card. Pell has always declared himself innocent. His defense also pointed to the incongruity of the accusations labelling them "an invention". Many testimonies have shown that the sacristy after the mass in the cathedral was "a hive of activity", and that the then archbishop was always accompanied by the master of ceremonies. It was therefore almost impossible for him to remain alone in the sacristy; as it was also impossible that at the end of the Mass two choir members would go on their own, leaving the final procession. The trial was conducted with two juries, because the first failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

The gag order imposed on the sentence last December was dictated by the judge not to influence another process in which the cardinal was involved. But two days ago, the prosecutor dropped the trail, which was to be held in May.

In recent days, Pope Francis held a “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church" to combat abuse.

Card. Pell said he will appeal against the sentence. He risks 50 years in prison.

In Australia, the tragedy of abuse has become a "national tragedy": in 2017 a government inquiry reported that tens of thousands of children have been abused in Australian churches since the 1950s.

Before Card. Pell, the most striking case related to sexual abuse of minors was that of the former archbishop of Adelaide, Msgr. Philip Wilson, accused of having covered cases of pedophilia dating back to 1970. Last December, Msgr. Wilson was acquitted on appeal.

Late this morning, the Holy See issued a statement by the interim director, Alessandro Gisotti, reiterating "the utmost respect for the Australian judicial authorities". It also notes that Card. Pell "reiterated his innocence and has the right to defend himself in appeal". It is also stated that while awaiting the final judgment, "to guarantee the course of justice, the Holy Father confirmed the precautionary measures already ordered against Card. George Pell by the local ordinary on his return to Australia. That is, while awaiting the definitive assessment of the facts, Cardinal Pell is forbidden to exercise the public service of hisministry and, as a rule, contact in any way and form with minors".