The Slatest

Report: Third-Highest Ranking Vatican Official Convicted on Sex Abuse Charges in Australia

Pell, with his head bent downward, walks through a crowd of reporters. Behind him, a camera is trained on him.
Cardinal George Pell in Melbourne, Australia, on Dec. 11.
William West/Getty Images

Cardinal George Pell, the third-highest ranking member of the Vatican and the top Catholic official ever to go to trial over the church’s sex abuse scandal, was found guilty Tuesday in Australia of charges of sexually abusing two choir boys in the late 1990s, the Daily Beast reports.

On Wednesday, the Vatican announced Pope Francis had removed Pell and Francisco Javier Errázuriz, a cardinal from Chile, from the group of his nine close advisers, according to the BBC. Errázuriz has been accused of covering up allegations of abuse and actively working to discredit victims while serving as the archbishop of Santiago. As of now, Pell officially remains the secretariat for the economy—the treasurer of the Vatican, handpicked by Francis, and the third-highest role in the Vatican hierarchy—but he took an indefinite leave of absence to defend himself against the accusations in Australia. Pell has maintained his innocence of the charges.

Thanks to a ruling by an Australian judge, a “suppression” order to prevent “risk of prejudice” banned any press coverage of the trial in Australia, where the gag order remains in place. As a result, many details about the allegations and decision are not known. The unanimous verdict this week comes after a hung jury resulted in a mistrial in an earlier trial, which began in June in Melbourne.

Before being appointed to the position at the Vatican in 2014, Pell held senior positions in Australia, including as the archbishop of Sydney and the archbishop of Melbourne. He is Australia’s most senior Catholic, and some speculated, before the allegations came to light, that he could replace Francis upon the pope’s death, according to the Guardian. According to the Daily Beast, the trial has been referred to as “the cathedral trial” to differentiate it from separate allegations against Pell involving a swimming pool.

According to the Guardian, author Louise Milligan last year published claims Pell had sexually abused two teenage choir boys at St. Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne while serving as archbishop there in the 1990s. She reported that one of the two boys died from an overdose in 2014. Pell called the accusations a “scandalous smear campaign.”

Though not part of the trial, Pell has also been accused of abuse in incidents in the 1960s and ‘70s. An Australian website called Broken Rites published complaints from the early 1960s from a Catholic youth camp in which a boy accused Pell, then a seminarian, of touching his genitals. According to the Daily Beast, the allegation, which was made in 2002, was investigated by an Australian judge, who concluded it could not be verified.

More recently, in 2015, a woman signed a statement to police after hearing one of her son’s childhood friends accuse Pell of abusing him in a swimming pool in the city of Ballarat, Pell’s hometown, when he was a child and Pell a young priest in the 1970s, according to the Guardian. That friend has since died, and prosecutors withdrew the charge against Pell. But the woman’s son then made similar allegations. These accusations make up the second, “swimmers trial,” which is expected to begin early next year, according to the Daily Beast.

Pell hired an all-star legal defense team, which includes Robert Richter, who reportedly charges as much as $11,000 a day, the Daily Beast reported. His legal fees will likely add up into the millions, and, as the Daily Beast noted, as Pell is the Vatican’s treasurer, only he is guaranteed to know who will bear the costs.