SYDNEY, Australia – Cardinal George Pell has been convicted by an Australian court on charges of sexual abuse of minors, according to media reports and sources close to the cardinal.
A judicial gag order has restricted Australian media coverage of the trial since June. It could be in place for several more months, due to a second trial against Pell expected to be heard in early 2019.
Despite the gag order, a story published December 11 on the Daily Beast website first reported that a unanimous verdict of guilty had been returned by a jury on charges that Pell sexually abused two altar servers in the late 1990s, while he was archbishop of Melbourne.
The verdict reportedly followed three days of deliberations by the jury — the second to hear the case. In October, two sources close to Cardinal Pell, members of neither his legal team nor the Catholic hierarchy in Australia, told CNA that the first hearing of the case had ended in a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury.
In remarks to CNA December 12, those sources independently confirmed this week’s report that a guilty verdict had been reached. According to those sources, Pell will be sentenced in early 2019 and will remain free until then.
The report has not been confirmed by the Australian judiciary; if it is, Pell can appeal to the Supreme Court in Victoria, and from there to the Australian High Court.
Pell has been on leave from his position as prefect of the Holy See’s Secretariat for the Economy since 2017. Pell asked Pope Francis to allow him to step back from his duties to travel home to Australia to defend himself against the charges, which he has consistently denied.
Citing deference to the gag order, the Vatican has declined to comment on reports of the guilty verdict.
“The Holy See has the utmost respect for the Australian courts. We are aware there is a suppression order in place and we respect that order,” Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters December 12.
Pell has been accused of multiple instances of sexual abuse of minors. In May, lawyers for the cardinal petitioned the County Court of Victoria to split the allegations into two trials, one dealing with the accusations from Melbourne, and another dealing with accusations related to his time as a priest in Ballarat in the 1970s.
The judge in the Melbourne trial imposed a sweeping injunction preventing media from reporting on the progress of the case. The gag order reportedly remains in force over concerns that the verdict could influence the outcome of the second trial.
Prior to his appointment to the Secretariat for the Economy in 2014, Pell served as the archbishop of Sydney.
In October, Pope Francis removed Pell, along with Cardinal Javier Errazuriz and Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, from the “C9” Council of Cardinals charged with helping the pope draft a new constitution for the Holy See’s governing structure.
In April 2018, Robert Richter, the lead attorney on Pell’s legal team, refuted the allegations made against Pell.
“The allegations are a product of fantasy, the product of some mental problems that the complainant may or may not have, or just pure invention in order to punish the representative of the Catholic Church in this country,” Richter said. He added that the accusations were “improbable, if not impossible.”
Before the gag order was imposed in June, Pell had been the subject of sustained media attention. The extent of hostile attention directed at him by several Australian outlets, even before the abuse accusations, led to a public debate in some sections of the Australian media about whether it would be possible to find an impartial jury for the cardinal.
In remarks to CNA, one source called the proceeding a “witch hunt,” saying prosecutors were determined to secure a conviction, despite the earlier mistrial. “They kept going until they got the jury who’d give them what they want,” the source told CNA.
In a separate case last week, another Australian court overturned the recent conviction of the former archbishop of Melbourne, Philip Wilson, on charges he failed to report complaints of sexual abuse.
Newcastle District Court Judge Roy Ellis said December 6 that the Crown had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilson did not report abuse committed by Father James Fletcher, when Fletcher was charged in 2004 with child abuse that occurred between 1989 and 1991.
The judge noted the possibility of undue media influence on the case. The heavy media presence “may amount to perceived pressure for a court to reach a conclusion which seems to be consistent with the direction of public opinion, rather than being consistent with the rule of law that requires a court to hand down individual justice in its decision-making processes,” Ellis said.
Wilson could not be convicted merely because the “Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in terms of its historical self-protective approach” to clerical sex abuse, the judge said. Wilson has the same rights as any other individual appearing before the court, he added.
“It is not for me to punish the Catholic Church for its institutional moral deficits, or to punish Philip Wilson for the sins of the now-deceased James Fletcher by finding Philip Wilson guilty, simply on the basis that he is a Catholic priest.”