Melbourne, Australia — George Pell, an Australian cardinal who was the Vatican’s chief financial officer and an adviser to Pope Francis, was sentenced to six years in prison on Wednesday, for molesting two boys after Sunday Mass in 1996.
The cardinal was convicted on five counts in December, making him the most senior Catholic official — and the first bishop — to be found guilty in a criminal court for sexually abusing minors, according to BishopAccountability.org, which tracks cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
Cardinal Pell, who stood stone-faced with lips pursed when his sentence was read aloud, will not be eligible for parole for three years and eight months.
“I would characterize these breaches and abuses as grave,” the chief judge in the case, Peter Kidd, said during the sentencing. Speaking directly to Cardinal Pell, he added: “Your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance.”
The sentence, falling far short of the 50-year maximum, will be closely scrutinized around the world. The hearing was broadcast live from the courtroom in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, where Cardinal Pell first rose to prominence as an archbishop.
It brings to a close two years of legal jockeying over evidence and accusations of sexual abuse, most of which were kept from public view by Australia’s legal system until recently. And for Catholics all over the world, it amounts to the toppling of a Vatican giant, a cleric of enormous power who will now reside behind bars.
“The importance of this case cannot be overstated,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.org. “It will set a precedent.”
[In the wake of the Pell case, the Catholic Church in Australia is demoralized and losing members.]
Victims of sexual abuse and advocates who attended the sentencing left with mixed feelings. Some called it a welcome if small dose of justice, while others said the sentence was far too lenient.
“Why should we take into account his age?” said Phil Nagle, an advocate for abuse victims from Ballarat, Cardinal Pell’s hometown. “He’s ruined lives.”
The main complainant in the case, who is unnamed in accordance with Australian laws that aim to protect sexual abuse survivors, also made clear that his pain and frustration would linger. He issued a statement through his lawyer, Vivian Waller, who read it aloud to reporters just minutes after the sentencing.
Cardinal Pell has said he is innocent, and his lawyers, including Robert Richter, center, plan to appeal his conviction.
“It is hard for me, for the time being, to take comfort in this outcome,” his statement said. “I appreciate that the court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child. However, there is no rest for me.”
Cardinal Pell’s conviction was unsealed only two weeks ago, when the court lifted a suppression order that had kept the guilty verdict a secret in Australia for months.
The cardinal, 77, says he is innocent, and his lawyers have said they will appeal the conviction. In a sign of his once-rarefied status, he can count among his supporters two former Australian prime ministers, including one, John Howard, who submitted a character reference as part of a push for a reduced sentence.
[Here is how other countries, including the United States and Italy, have dealt with abusive clergy.]
In his pre-sentence remarks, Judge Kidd referred repeatedly to such context, noting Cardinal Pell’s senior role in the church and his life of service beyond the offenses. But he also condemned Cardinal Pell for his “sustained offending” and described his “graphic sexual misconduct” as egregious.
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Cardinal Pell was convicted on five counts of abuse relating to two separate episodes. The most important evidence came from a single complainant, who said that after a Sunday Mass in late 1996 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, he and another 13-year-old boy sneaked into the priests’ sacristy, where they were discovered, reprimanded and molested by Cardinal Pell.
According to the man’s testimony, Cardinal Pell pushed the other boy toward his genitals, then moved on to the complainant. The cardinal put his penis into the boy’s mouth, before telling him to remove his pants, touching himself and the boy at the same time, he said.
Cardinal Pell was convicted of three counts of committing an indecent act with, or in the presence of, a child and one count of sexual penetration of a child under the age of 16.
A separate charge related to an episode some weeks later, in which the same complainant said the cardinal pushed him up against a wall and squeezed his genitals.
When Judge Kidd laid out these details in court, before issuing his sentence, Cardinal Pell mostly sat still and looked straight ahead. But at other moments, when Judge Kidd described the abuse in detail, including the complainant’s fear and pleas to be let go during the abuse, the cardinal closed his eyes.
“During the incident,” Judge Kidd said, they were “crying and sobbing.” But Cardinal Pell, he said, told them to keep quiet.
Cardinal Pell’s legal team had tried to persuade jurors that no man of such prominence would risk it all to abuse two 13-year-old boys. In a trial that began in August, the approach worked; it ended with a mistrial. But a second trial that started in November yielded a conviction. In February, the cardinal was jailed to await sentencing.
It was a fall from great heights for Cardinal Pell, who appeared in court without his clerical collar. In Australia, at least, there were few figures of any religion who were better known or more combative in matters of faith and politics.
Cardinal Pell’s career spanned decades, starting with his time as a parish priest in his hometown, Ballarat, followed by stints as archbishop of Melbourne and, later, of Sydney.
He became a cardinal in 2005. In 2014, Pope Francis named him the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, charging him with overseeing the Vatican’s finances.
At every point, he was a savvy financial operator — he is well known, in part, for protecting church finances from large payouts to abuse victims — and a culture warrior. He could frequently be found raising money for conservative causes in Australia, publicly condemning homosexuality and stepping into policy debates as well, opposing, for example, legislation to allow adoption by gay parents.
At the same time, he was trailed by accusations of sexual abuse reaching back to the 1960s, when he was a seminarian. His denials always won out, until two years ago, when he returned to Australia from the Vatican to face a variety of charges.
Besides the episodes for which he was convicted, a handful of other allegations, from the 1970s, nearly came to trial. Cardinal Pell was accused of touching two boys on the genitals while playing with them in a swimming pool, and another boy in a lake.
Those charges made it all the way to pretrial hearings. But after the judge deemed some evidence inadmissible last month, prosecutors decided not to proceed. With a trial on those charges no longer pending, the judge lifted his gag order, allowing news outlets in Australia to report Cardinal Pell’s conviction.
Since then, more allegations against Cardinal Pell have emerged. The relatives of at least one victim — the second 13-year-old he was convicted of abusing, who later died — have said that they plan to sue Cardinal Pell and the church in civil court.
Cardinal Pell may also face renewed scrutiny for how he handled cases of abuse when he was archbishop.
But on Wednesday, Judge Kidd implored the public to remember that Cardinal Pell was being sentenced only for the crimes he committed in 1996. Survivors outside the courtroom said they hoped it would lead to greater accountability. “A lot of them don’t get sentenced,” said David Emery, a 64-year-old survivor.
Cardinal Pell’s sentence, he added, was “going to leave a mark.”
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