By Byron Kaye
SYDNEY (Reuters) – For two decades, George Pell was the dominant figure in the Catholic Church in Australia – a boy from a gold mining town whose ambition, intellect and knack for befriending influential people propelled him to become the third-most senior official in the Vatican.
That came crashing down in December, when a court found Pell, 77, guilty of five charges of child sex offences committed on two 13-year-old choir boys in a Melbourne.
On Wednesday, Pell’s fall was complete as he was sentenced to six years in jail and registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life, which the judge acknowledged Pell may now spend in jail.
Pell is the most senior Roman Catholic official to be convicted of sexual offences, bringing a rolling abuse scandal that has dogged the church worldwide for three decades to the heart of both the Vatican and Australian civic life.
“Your obvious status as Archbishop cast a powerful shadow over this offending,” County Court of Victoria Chief Judge Peter Kidd said of Pell during the sentencing, where he described Pell’s crimes as “brazen” and grave”.
Pell maintains his innocence and his appeal against the verdict will be heard in June.
Pell, who has been held in custody for the past two weeks, now faces years in a Victorian prison, a far cry from the apartment where he lived in Piazza Citta Leonina, a small square just across the street from the Vatican’s St. Ann’s Gate.
Pell spent most of his first three decades as a priest in Ballarat, an old gold mining town in the state of Victoria, about 120 km (75 miles) from Melbourne.
State and federal inquiries would later find it to be one of the Catholic dioceses worst-affected by cases of abuse, though none of the complaints against Pell stem from his time there.
It was after Pell left his hometown to become Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 that he committed offences against two choir boys in the city’s St Patrick’s Cathedral for which he was found guilty by the 12-person jury.
It was not until 2016 that the complaints against Pell were first made public, with charges laid in 2017, and in the meantime he continued to rise through Australia’s Church hierarchy.
By 2001 when Pell became Archbishop of Sydney, the country’s top-ranking Catholic position, he was a polarising national figure – revered by many conservative Catholics but criticised by liberals for his outspoken views.
At a 2002 World Youth Day event in Toronto, Pell made headlines by saying “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people” since abortion was “always a destruction of human life”.
In meetings among cardinals before the conclave that elected Pope Francis in 2013, the Australian stood out not only for his imposing height and broad shoulders, but also for his command of financial matters.
Hoping to end Vatican financial scandals, the pope moved Pell to Rome and in 2014 he was appointed to run a new ministry, the Secretariat for the Economy.
Meanwhile, in Australia, a state inquiry into institutional abuse began airing accounts of child abuse and cover-ups in Ballarat and elsewhere over generations, triggering a more powerful, comprehensive Federal Royal Commission inquiry.
Pell was not named as an alleged perpetrator at either inquiry. When he was called to give evidence at the Royal Commission it was only in relation to his knowledge of others’ conduct, and the question of whether he was present when church leaders decided to move offending priests between parishes.
In testimony to the commission in March 2016, Pell said that he did not know of the sexual abuse of children in Ballarat by another priest in the 1970s until his conviction in 1993, although the commission had heard testimony from others that the priest’s behaviour was an open secret in the diocese.
“It’s a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me,” he told that inquiry. Pell also said the Church made “catastrophic” choices by minimising its response to, and covering up, abuse complaints.
When the global wave of abuse allegations reached Pell in June 2017, some of the country’s most powerful people stood by him, including former conservative prime minister Tony Abbott, himself a devout Catholic, who told a newspaper “the George Pell I have known is a very fine man indeed”.
After the conviction was made public in Australia last month, Abbott told a radio programme he had called Pell, although he declined to give details of the conversation.
“I’m not a fair-weather friend,” Abbott said.
Another conservative former prime minister, John Howard, provided a written character reference for Pell in court after his conviction, saying he had known Pell for 30 years.
“None of these matters alter my opinion of the Cardinal,” Howard wrote.
The most senior Catholic of all, Pope Francis, who faces calls to strip Pell of his Cardinal status, has said he would withhold comment until the appeal process was concluded.
Pell was among three cardinals the pope removed from his group of close advisers a day after the December verdict. No reason was given at the time.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by John Mair, Alex Richardson and Michael Perry)