International desk, Feb 26: Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of sexual offences in Australia, making him the highest-ranking Catholic figure to receive such a conviction.Pell abused two choir boys in the rooms of a Melbourne cathedral in 1996, a jury found. He had pleaded not guilty, BBC reported.
The verdict was handed down in December, but it could not be reported until now due to legal reasons.
Pell is due to be sentenced on Wednesday. His lawyers say they will appeal against the conviction.
As Vatican treasurer, the 77-year-old cardinal is one of the Church’s most powerful officials.
His trial was heard twice last year because a first jury failed to reach a verdict.
A second jury unanimously convicted him of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.
The Catholic Church worldwide has in recent years faced a damaging series of allegations relating to sex abuse by priests, and claims that these cases were covered up.
Pell’s case has drawn huge interest at a time when the Pope is attempting to address the scandals, including by holding a four-day summit in the past week.
What did the court hear?
Pell was in his first year as archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 when he found the boys in the rooms of a cathedral following a mass, the jury was told.
After telling them they were in trouble for drinking communion wine, Pell forced each boy into indecent acts, the court heard.
The court heard testimony from one of the victims. The other victim is no longer alive.
A jury rejected an argument by Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter QC, that the allegations were fantasies contrived by the victims.
What has Pell said?
He denied all allegations against him, saying in 2017: “I am innocent of these charges – they are false. The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”
He has been on an extended leave of absence from the Vatican amid the court proceedings in Melbourne.
Why was the case kept secret?
Last May, a judge handed down a legal order which prevented any reporting of Pell’s trial and conviction.
It was designed to prevent a separate trial from being influenced by the first trial.
But the later trial – which involved accusations against Pell dating to the 1970s – will no longer go ahead, after prosecutors dropped all charges.
What is the wider picture?
The sexual abuse of children was rarely discussed in public before the 1970s, and it was not until the 1980s that the first cases of molestation by priests came to light, in the US and Canada.
In the 1990s, revelations began of widespread abuse in Ireland and in the new century, more cases of abuse were revealed in more than a dozen countries.
Since his election, Pope Francis has appeared to offer new hope to victims. Under his papacy, a Vatican committee has been set up to fight sexual abuse and help victims.
In recent days, the Pope promised concrete action in tackling child sex abuse.
However, he has also been criticised for not doing enough to hold to account bishops who carried out abuse, and those alleged to have covered it up.
Victims’ groups have frequently responded to the Vatican’s efforts with scepticism.