ROME –Now that a gag order on Australian Cardinal George Pell’s conviction in December for “historical sexual offenses” has been lifted, the Vatican Tuesday said it would await the result of Pell’s planned appeal, “recalling that Cardinal Pell has confirmed his innocence and has the right to defend himself to the last degree.”
“Awaiting definitive judgment, we unite ourselves to the Australian bishops in praying for all the victims of abuse, repeating our commitment to doing everything possible so that the Church is a safe house for everyone, especially for minors and the most vulnerable,” a Vatican statement read.
“To guarantee the course of justice, the Holy Father has confirmed the precautionary measures already outlined regarding Cardinal Pell by the [bishop] of the place where he reentered Australia,” the statement said.
“That is, pending a definitive assessment of the facts, Cardinal Pell is forbidden to exercise public ministry and, according to the norm, from having contact in any way or form with minors.”
The announcement came in a statement read aloud to journalists by Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti Tuesday, at the beginning of a news conference dedicated to the pope’s annual Lenten message.
Gisotti opened the statement referring to Pell’s conviction as “sad news, which, we’re well aware, has shocked many people and not just in Australia.” He reiterated the Vatican’s “maximum respect for the Australian judicial authorities.”
Though the statement did not specify what the Vatican was waiting to do, presumably the reference was to either initiating a process against Pell under Church law or removing him from his Vatican position, or both.
Gisotti did not add anything to the statement on Pell, who formally remains the head of the Secretariat for the Economy, in effect the Vatican’s top financial official. Pell was given a leave of absence from that position in June 2017, when the charges were first announced.
After nearly four full days of deliberations, a jury in Melbourne, Australia, rendered unanimous guilty verdicts Dec. 11, 2018, on five charges related to the abuse of two choirboys in 1996. While Crux and other media outlets reported the result at the time, many others continued to observer a strict suppression order imposed by the court.
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Pell continues to deny the charges and has announced plans to appeal the verdict. The 77-year-old cardinal faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing which begins on Wednesday.
Prosecutors in Melbourne have dropped a second set of charges, related to an alleged assault at a swimming pool in the 1970s.
One of the victims in the case for which Pell was convicted, whose name has been withheld because it’s illegal to identify victims of sexual assault in Australia’s Victoria State, said he’s experienced “shame, loneliness, depression and struggle” as a result of his experience.
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Pell has been a key point of reference in English-speaking Catholicism for at least the last two decades, and he was appointed by Pope Francis to his “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world in 2013. In mid-December, the Vatican announced that at the end of October 2018 Francis had removed Pell, along with two other cardinals, from that council.
Pell served as the Archbishop of Melbourne in Australia from 1996 to 2001, then as the Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 until his appointment to his Vatican position.