DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with sexual abuse, has been convicted in Australia of molesting two choir boys in a Melbourne cathedral two decades ago. Cardinal Pell had been chosen by Pope Francis to run the Vatican's new economic ministry and to put the Holy See's finances in order. Here's reaction to the conviction from Mark Coleridge, the archbishop of Brisbane, Australia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARK COLERIDGE: The same legal system that delivered the verdict will now consider the appeal that the cardinal's legal team has lodged. Our hope at all times is that through this process, justice will be served.
GREENE: I want to bring in NPR's Sylvia Poggioli who's covering this. Hi, Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: And I do want to warn our listeners before we get started that there's some pretty sensitive stuff we'll be talking about that might not be suitable for everyone. I guess it's worth noting this trial actually ended in December, right? We're only learning details now because there was a gag order on the media in Australia. So go through what exactly we're learning about these charges.
POGGIOLI: Well, we just learned Pell, who is 77 years old, was convicted of five sexual offences committed against two 13-year-old choir boys in 1996 in the - in a Melbourne cathedral. He was archbishop then. Each of the five offences carries a maximum of 10 years in jail. He's due to appear in court tomorrow for sentencing. The victim, whose name has not been released, was 13 at the time of the abuse. He described how Pell had exposed himself to the two boys, fondled them and forced one boy to perform a sex act on him. Pell denies the allegations. And his lawyers said he's been made a scapegoat for the failings of the entire church towards sexual abuse by priests. And they will appeal the verdict.
GREENE: Can you tell me more about Cardinal Pell - like, his background?
POGGIOLI: Pell spent most of his first three decades as a priest in Ballarat. That's a gold-mining town some 75 miles from Melbourne. Several investigations - federal and state investigations would later reveal that Ballarat was one of the worst affected dioceses with cases of abuse by priests, although none of the complaints from there were those made against Pell during that period. He rose up the career ladder. And in 2001, he became archbishop of Sydney, the top ranking Catholic position in Australia. And he was already a polarizing figure then. In 2002, he said abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people since abortion always ends with the destruction of human life. The first complaints against him were made public in 2016. A year later, he took leave from absence from the Vatican where Pope Francis had named him economy minister. And he returned home to face charges against him.
GREENE: I mean, we've heard so much of your reporting on Pope Francis dealing with so many cases of pedophile priests and - all over the world. But does this conviction bring - you know, of a top Vatican official - bring this whole scandal much closer to this pope?
POGGIOLI: Absolutely. And today the Vatican just issued a statement. It agrees with the statement made by Archbishop Coleridge. It said Pell's conviction is painful. It's aware it's a shock to many people not only in Australia. It voiced full respect for Australian justice and is waiting for the results of the appeal. It pointed out that Pell says he's innocent, and he has a right to defend himself to the last level of justice. But it also said the pope has confirmed precautionary measures already taken against Pell, including a ban on his saying mass in public and, as is the rule there, contact in any way or form with minors until the final verdict is handed down on appeal.
GREENE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Thanks so much, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, David.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.