Australia

Vatican opens investigation into Pell that could lead to expulsion from priesthood

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The Vatican says it will open its own investigation into accusations against Cardinal George Pell, after he was found guilty of sexual abuse by a Melbourne court.

The Vatican will open an internal investigation into Australian Cardinal George Pell following his conviction for sexually assaulting two choirboys, its spokesman said Wednesday.

"After the guilty verdict in the first instance concerning Cardinal Pell, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will now handle the case following the procedure and within the time established by canonical norm," Alessandro Gisotti, Interim director of the Vatican media unit, said in a statement.

The investigation could result in a canonical trial and Pell's eventual expulsion from the priesthood.

Earlier this month, the same Vatican office made the unprecedented move to defrock former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, after investigating accusations he sexually abused minors.

Pell no remorse, say prosecutors

On Wednesday, Pell’s lawyers withdrew their planned bail application and he has been remanded in custody, with sentencing to take place on 13 March.

Pell was initially scheduled to apply for bail Wednesday, following the pre-sentence court hearing in Melbourne, but prosecutors told the court he had felt no remorse for sexually abusing two choirboys at a Melbourne cathedral and no insight into his crimes.

At the conclusion of the hearing, County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd instructed officers to "take him away, please". There was silence in the filled courtroom as Pell slowly stood and was handed his walking stick.

Australia's top-ranking Catholic strode, head down, to the door beyond which he will spend his first night in jail.

The 77-year-old paused at the threshold, turned to Judge Kidd and bowed.

He will spend the night in jail after he was convicted of five child sex offences, committed in 1996 against two 13-year-old boys.

"The prisoner has shown no remorse or insight into his offending," Senior Crown Prosecutor Mark Gibson SC told the County Court on Wednesday.

"There remains no explanation for this offending."

It is expected Pell will be placed in protective custody and will await sentencing before seeking bail.

"Cardinal George Pell has not applied for bail today," lawyer Paul Galbally said in a statement.

"He believes it is appropriate for him to await his sentencing. Despite the unprecedented media coverage, Cardinal Pell has always and continues to maintain his innocence."

Outside court, Pell's defence lawyer Robert Richter, QC, said there were "good reasons" for withdrawing his client's bail request, but declined to elaborate beyond that.

The cleric was forced to push through a crowd of protesters and cries of "you're filth" and "go to hell" as he arrived at his pre-sentence court hearing earlier in the day.

It took several minutes for Pell to make his way from a car through the gauntlet of protesters, police, flashing cameras and reporters before filing into the building.

Cardinal Pell, once the third most powerful man in the Vatican and Australia's most senior Catholic, has been found guilty of child sexual abuse.
Cardinal Pell, once the third most powerful man in the Vatican and Australia's most senior Catholic, has been found guilty of child sexual abuse.
AAP

Chief Judge Peter Kidd questioned what Pell was thinking when he attacked the two boys.

"What I want to address is what he was thinking at the time, what motivated him and why he did this in such brazen circumstances," he told Mr Gibson.

The prosecutor could give no explanation but said: "He at least thought he was going to get away with it."

Mr Gibson said Pell, as archbishop of Melbourne at the time, was in a position of power and the offences were a breach of trust.

"There's an unlikelihood of him being questioned because of his position of power," he said.

Mr Gibson finished by saying Pell's crimes warranted immediate imprisonment.

Judge Kidd said he regarded Pell's prospects of rehabilitation as very good and believed he was unlikely to reoffend, in part because of his age.

Guilty verdict

Pell was found guilty by a jury in December of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old choirboy in 1996 and molesting another at St Patrick's Cathedral in East Melbourne.

He had been newly appointed Archbishop of Melbourne when he committed the crimes.

The jurors returned a unanimous verdict as part of a retrial following a hung jury in September.

Cardinal George Pell emerges from court on Tuesday. He will return to court for a pre-sentencing hearing.
Cardinal George Pell emerges from court on Tuesday. He will return to court for a pre-sentencing hearing.
AAP

However, a suppression order prevented media reporting details of the trial until the gag was lifted on Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday, Pell's lawyer Robert Richter QC accepted a prison sentence was inevitable but said he intended to appeal on three grounds, including that the jury verdict was unreasonable as it was contrary to the evidence.

The historical offences each carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence.

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Watch: George Pell's Career Timeline
Watch: George Pell's Career Timeline

'Right to defend himself'

Addressing Cardinal George Pell's guilty verdict for the first time, a Vatican spokesperson has confirmed on Tuesday that "precautionary measures" have already been taken against Pell, including a ban on his saying Mass in public and contact with minors. 

Interim Vatican spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti said Pell had the right to "defend himself until the last level", noting that the Vatican's former treasurer has maintained his innocence.

He added that the "painful" news of Pell's conviction for sexually abusing two choirboys in Australia has shocked many people, but adds that the prelate "has reiterated his innocence and has the right to defend himself".

"We reiterate the utmost respect for Australian judicial authorities. In the name of this respect, we now await the outcome of the appeal process," he said.

Mr Giosotti didn't take questions from journalists. 

On Wednesday the Vatican confirmed Pell was "no longer the Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy". It's unknown if he resigned the position or was fired by the church.

Cardinal George Pell (Centre) is seen in Melbourne, Australia,
A Vatican spokesman says news of Cardinal George Pell's conviction was "painful".
AAP

The fallout from his conviction began immediately, with Pell sacked from the Pope's Group of Nine advisers the day after, on December 12.

When the verdict went public in Melbourne on Tuesday, alma mater St Patrick's College, Ballarat removed his name from a building and Richmond Football Club dropped him as vice-patron.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President Mark Coleridge said the news came as a shock to many but he hoped justice would eventually be served.



"We pray for all those who have been abused and their loved ones, and we commit ourselves anew to doing everything possible to ensure that the Church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable," he said in a statement on Tuesday.

It all comes just days after a four-day summit on the clerical sexual abuse of children was held at the Vatican.

At the summit, Archbishop Coleridge from Brisbane said the church has become its own worst enemy when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge speaks to the media alongside Catholic Religious Australia president Sister Monica Cavanagh
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge speaks to the media.
AAP

"But who is the enemy? Certainly not those who have challenged the Church to see abuse and its concealment for what they really are, above all the victims and survivors who have led us to the painful truth by telling their stories with such courage," he said.

"At times, however, we have seen victims and survivors as the enemy, but we have not loved them, we have not blessed them. In that sense, we have been our own worst enemy."

Last week, Pope Francis said the prevention of child abuse was “an urgent challenge of our times” but "we have to deflate expectations, because the problem of abuse will continue, it is a human problem.”

The pope is yet to respond directly to Tuesday's events.

With AAP and AFP

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