VATICAN CITY — A court in Melbourne has lifted a suppression order on a trial of Cardinal George Pell, revealing that the Australian prelate was found guilty of historical sexual offenses in December but also that a second trial against him has now been dropped.
As the third-highest ranking Vatican official, Cardinal Pell is the most senior Church figure to face trial by jury, as well as to be tried for child sexual abuse, and to be found guilty of such charges.
In April, magistrate Belinda Wallington dismissed approximately half the charges against Cardinal Pell, but later ruled that the prosecution had a strong enough case for the remainder to go to full trial.
On Dec. 11, a jury hearing the evidence about those charges found the prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy guilty of abusing choristers in the sacristy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne immediately after celebrating a Mass in the late 1990s.
Since then, a second trial, regarding unrelated allegations dating from Cardinal Pell’s time as a priest in Ballarat, has been dropped, which a source close to the cardinal told the Register was “huge good news.”
A plea hearing will be held Wednesday, when both sides in the case can present their evidence to the judge.
Due to a court injunction aimed at preventing the now-cancelled second trial being contaminated by the verdict of the first, news agencies were prohibited from almost all reporting on the trials, including the nature of the accusations and the progress of the hearings.
The cardinal has vigorously denied the charges and has lodged an appeal against the verdict of the first trial. His lawyers say his appeal is very strong and are confident the cardinal’s conviction, which carries a possible 14-year jail sentence, will be quashed.
But they will not receive an appeal date until the judge has sentenced the cardinal.
Judge Peter Kidd has said Cardinal Pell will be remanded in custody after the plea hearing on Wednesday. He is likely to be sentenced in the fortnight after that hearing, according to The Age newspaper.
Sources say the cardinal is taking each development as it comes, and willing to see the process through to the end to prove his innocence.
Ed Condon of Catholic News Agency, which was able to circumvent the suppression order because its reports were not distributed within Australia, reported in December that Cardinal Pell was charged with five counts of sexual abuse against the two choristers immediately following a 10:30am Sunday Mass in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The Melbourne trial began in June last year and first ended in a hung jury and a mistrial in September, with jurors reportedly siding 10-2 in favor of Cardinal Pell’s innocence. A second hearing with a new jury began in November, delivering a unanimous conviction on Dec. 11.
“People in court saw how flimsy the evidence was,” a source close to the cardinal told the Register after the verdict in December. “This is an act of outrageous malice by a prejudiced jury. The media convicted him long ago in the court of public opinion and he did not receive a fair trial.”
But although evidence appeared to lean heavily in Cardinal Pell’s favor, his decision not to take the stand “made a negative impression” on the jury according to one source, while others defended his decision.
On Dec. 13, without directly referencing the suppressed outcome of Cardinal Pell’s just-concluded trial, Victoria state Attorney General Jill Hennessy pointed to the danger of negative media coverage influencing a jury, and asked her department to examine the option of “judge-only” trials for high-profile cases, as happens in other Australian states.
This followed the exoneration of Archbishop Philip Wilson, archbishop emeritus of Adelaide, whose conviction for failing to report child sexual abuse was overturned in early December by a judge on appeal. An appellate judge, Roy Ellis, said media portrayals of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis might have been a factor in the initial guilty verdict against Archbishop Wilson, according to CNA.
Cardinal Pell: ‘I’m Innocent’
In 2017, Cardinal Pell had said he was “looking forward to finally having my day in court.” Due to health restrictions, doctors advised him not to travel to Australia for the trial, but he voluntarily traveled to the country anyway to defend himself.
“I’m innocent of these charges, they are false,” he told reporters after Victoria police decided to press charges in June 2017. “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
He also said he had been subjected to “relentless character assassination” and drew attention to deliberate leaks to the media.
To some of the cardinal’s friends, the court’s conviction came as little surprise after they had heard of the hung jury in September and news of the retrial.
“It was as if they found it necessary to prove he was guilty whatever the evidence,” said one. “So, we always believed the only way to get out of this was to hope for a proper appeal. It was just going to be a process.”
Papal biographer George Weigel, who has been a close friend of Cardinal Pell for decades, also criticized the Australian legal context as prejudicial after the guilty verdict was delivered.
“George Pell is my oldest friend,” Weigel told the Register. “I first met him in 1967 and have worked closely with him for decades. It is inconceivable to me that he could have committed the crimes for which he has been convicted in this travesty of justice.
“And the verdict, rendered despite overwhelming defense evidence that what was alleged to have happened simply could not have happened, given the layout of buildings, circumstances of time and so forth, raises the most serious questions about whether any Catholic cleric accused of sexual abuse can receive a fair trial today, anywhere. And certainly in Australia.”