By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – In a decision that will undoubtedly create shockwaves around the globe, Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Church official to stand trial for sexual abuse, was found guilty on Tuesday by a Melbourne Court.
In one of the most closely watched trials in modern Catholic Church history, after nearly four full days of deliberations, a jury rendered unanimous guilty verdicts on five charges related to the abuse of two choirboys in 1996.
The trial, which began on November 7, has been subject to a media blackout at the request of the prosecution, and follows a first trial in September ended after a jury failed to reach consensus.
Cardinal Pell, who is 77 years old, is currently on a leave of absence from his post as the Vatican’s Secretary for the Economy.
In June 2017, Cardinal Pell was charged by Australian police with “historical sexual assault offences,” forcing him to leave Rome and return home vowing to “clear his name.”
This past May, after a four-week committal hearing, an Australian magistrate struck down some of the more serious charges against Cardinal Pell but ruled he stand trial on five charges related to sexual abuse of minors. The allegations, however, are from two separate periods, the 1970s and the 1990s, hence Judge Sue Pullen’s decision in May to mandate two different trials.
The focus of the first trial centered on the alleged sexual assault of two choirboys at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the late 1990s.
During the four weeks of testimony, the jury of twelve heard from the former Master of Ceremonies of the cathedral, its former organist, and other choirboys during the same period of the alleged incident.
Much of the testimony centered on whether or not it would have been possible for Cardinal Pell to have been alone with the members of the choir and whether it would have been physically possible for Cardinal Pell to engage in such actions while wearing his mass vestments.
Jury deliberations for the case began late last week, and continued through Tuesday.
Cardinal Pell has been a key point of reference in English-speaking Catholicism for at least the last two decades, and he was appointed by Pope Francis to his “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world in 2013. On Wednesday, the Vatican announced that at the end of October, Pope Francis had removed Cardinal Pell, along with two other cardinals, from his council of advisers.
He served as the Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, then as the Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 until his appointment to his Vatican position in 2014.
Following the May ruling, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke released a statement saying that “The Holy See has taken note of the decision issued by judicial authorities in Australia” regarding Cardinal Pell.
“Last year, the Holy Father granted Cardinal Pell a leave of absence so he could defend himself from the accusations. The leave of absence is still in place,” Burke said.
Despite the Vatican’s position in May, Cardinal Pell’s term of office ends in August and it’s unclear what happens next.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told reporters on Wednesday that “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,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Australian Catholic Church unveiled its official response to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the nation’s highest form of inquiry.
The Royal Commission revealed last year that 7 percent of Catholic priests were accused of sexually abusing children in Australia over the past several decades, and in response, the Church accepted 98 percent of its 80 recommendations, deciding only against the recommendation that the Church eliminate the seal of the confessional.
Cardinal Pell verdict and the Church’s response to the Royal Commission comes at a time in which the global Catholic Church is struggling to combat the issue of clerical sexual abuse.
In August, Francis penned a letter to the “People of God” in which he apologized for widespread cover-up and failures, and in February, he has called the presidents of every bishops’ conference around the world for a global summit on the issue.
During the release of the Australian Church’s response to the Royal Commission, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, vowed systematic reform throughout the country.
“Our response in Australia gives local shape to the action required to address such failure and the need for cultural change,” he wrote.
A sentencing date for Cardinal Pell has been set for February 2019. Judge Peter Kidd said Cardinal Pell will be taken into custody on that date, however an appeal by his defense team is likely.