MELBOURNE, Australia — The most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex abuse was sent to prison on Wednesday and will wait two weeks to learn his sentence for molesting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral two decades ago.
Victorian state County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd revoked Cardinal George Pell’s bail at the end of a sentencing hearing in a packed, standing room-only courtroom. Kidd said he would deliver his sentence on March 13.
The 77-year-old Pell, who could face 50 years in prison, showed no expression as he walked from the dock with a cane escorted by three court security officers and a prison guard. Pell paused at the door, turned to the judge and bowed.
He was taken by prison van from the court to the Melbourne Assessment Prison, a maximum security facility where inmates new to the state penal system are assessed. All prisoners are strip-searched on arrival and Pell, like all pedophiles, will be kept in protective custody, where he will remain alone for up to 23 hours a day.
A jury unanimously convicted Pell in December of abusing the two 13-year-olds in a rear room of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 weeks after becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city. But Pell wasn’t taken into custody immediately because he had surgery scheduled to have both knees replaced.
Pell faced an abusive crowd Wednesday as he entered court half an hour before his sentencing hearing began.
“I hope you burn in hell!” one man shouted while pushing against a cluster of police officers trying to shield the cardinal as he walked into the courthouse. “You’re a pedophile! You’re a criminal! You’re a monster!”
Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter was heckled by members of the public during the lunch break, prompting Kidd to warn people in the gallery that they could be charged with contempt of court for such behavior.
Kidd said such acts directed at Pell and Richter showed that Pell was being blamed for the sexual abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church recently exposed by a government-commissioned investigation into Australian institutions’ handling of abuse allegations.
“The Catholic Church is not on trial … I’m imposing sentence on Cardinal Pell for what he did,” Kidd said.
The court had until Tuesday forbidden publication of any details about the trial because Pell had faced a second trial in April on charges that he indecently assaulted two boys aged 9 or 10 and 11 or 12 as a young priest in the late 1970s in a public pool in his hometown of Ballarat. Those charges have now been dropped.
Pope Francis removed Pell as a member of his informal Cabinet in October. He had remained prefect of the Vatican’s economy ministry, but his five-year term expired this month, acting Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.
Gisotti tweeted that Pell “is no longer” the Holy See’s economy chief.
On Wednesday, Gisotti said that the Vatican office that handles sex abuse of minors has taken over the case as well. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has the power to remove Pell from the priesthood, as it did recently with former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked earlier this month after the Vatican office found him guilty of sexually abusing minors and adults.
The Vatican spokesman says that the Vatican office that handles sex abuse of minors has taken over the case involving Cardinal George Pell following his conviction for molesting two choir boys.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Wednesday that the Australian cardinal, the highest Catholic cleric convicted of sex abuse, was being investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which has the power to remove him from the priesthood.
The move was expected as the Church must conduct its own canonical investigation whenever there is a credible allegation of sex abuse.
Pell was jailed Wednesday pending his sentencing in the decades-old molestation case.
Pope Francis removed Pell as a member of his informal Cabinet in October, and the Vatican confirmed he is no longer its economy minister.
Pell will be sentenced for five convictions of sexual penetration and indecent acts involving the boys. Each conviction carries a maximum 10-year prison term.
The judge said Pell was guilty of a breach of trust with an element of brutality and had had a sense of impunity. “I see this as callus, brazen offending — blatant,” Kidd said.
“At the time, he thought he was going to get away with it. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done it,” Kidd added.
Richter had told the jury during the trial that “only a mad man” would take the risk of sexually abusing two boys in a cathedral room with the door open and people likely to wander in.
On Wednesday, Richter described the abuse as a “temporary loss of judgment” in response to an “irresistible impulse.”
Pell had maintained his innocence throughout, describing the accusations as “vile and disgusting conduct.” His lawyers have appealed the convictions and were scheduled to appear in the Court of Appeal on Wednesday afternoon to apply for bail. But the bail application was later withdrawn, and no date has been set for an appeal hearing.
Pell lawyer Paul Galbally said the cardinal had decided against applying for bail.
“He believes it is appropriate for him to await his sentencing” in prison, Galbally said in a statement.
The victim who testified at Pell’s trial said in a statement that since the conviction was revealed, he has experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle.” The man said it had taken him years to understand the impact the assault had on his life.
The other victim died of a heroin overdose that his father attributed to the aftermath of the abuse. Neither victim can be named under state law.
The revelations in the Pell case came in the same month that the Vatican announced that Francis approved the expulsion from the priesthood of a former high-ranking American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, for sexual abuse of minors and adults.
The convictions were also confirmed days after Francis concluded his extraordinary summit of Catholic leaders summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests.