Pell, who served as the Vatican treasurer and was once part of Pope Francis’ inner circle, is the highest-ranking member of the Roman Catholic Church to be convicted of child sexual assault.
He was convicted of five counts at a hearing in December, but the media were prohibited from reporting about the details of the case due to a broad gag order meant to protect the integrity of the trial. He faced a total of 10 years in prison for each of those charges.
Pell, 77, will be eligible for parole in three years and six months and, if released, will be required to register as a sex offender for life. Judge Peter Kidd cited the cardinal’s advanced age and various health issues in considering his sentence.
“Each year you spend in custody will represent a substantial portion of your remaining life expectancy,” Kidd said Wednesday.
The sentenced stems from two incidents in the 1990s when Pell was the newly appointed Archbishop of Melbourne. He was accused of sexually assaulting two 13-year-old altar boys shortly after Sunday Mass, including an instance when Pell forced one of the boys to perform oral sex on him. During a separate incident, Pell was accused of grabbing a boy’s genitals.
A unanimous jury found him guilty of five counts of sexual abuse. Pell has maintained his innocence throughout the trial, and his lawyers have said they would appeal the conviction.
During the sentencing, Kidd said that, in his view, Pell’s “conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance” and called the actions “grave” and brazen.
“The argument of your counsel that this offending was committed by you, George Pell the man, and not by you, George Pell the archbishop, must be roundly rejected,” Kidd noted. “I do so without hesitation.”
One of the men who was abused by Pell released a statement through his lawyer after the verdict was handed down, saying the judge was “meticulous” in his ruling. But, he noted, it was “hard ... for the time being, to take comfort in this outcome.”
“I appreciate that the Court has acknowledged what was inflicted upon me as a child,” the unnamed victim’s said through his attorney, Vivian Waller. “However, there is no rest for me. Everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal.”
He added: “Being a witness in a criminal case has not been easy. I’m doing my best to hold myself and my family together.”
News of the verdict prompted some expressions of frustration outside the Melbourne court on Wednesday. Michael “Advocate,” the founder of the organization Victim Group Actions, which represents victims of sexual abuse, said the potential for parole paled in comparison to the pain experienced by those hurt by such abuse.
“It’s absolutely outrageous,” Advocate told the local news after the sentence was handed down. “Every victim is sentenced to a lifetime of pain and suffering. We get a lifetime sentence ... he gets three years and eight months.”
Pell was once the third-most-powerful figure in the Roman Catholic Church, and he served as the de facto finance chief. He was removed from his role as one of the pope’s advisers in December after the verdict was reached.
The Australian public knew that Pell was facing trial, but details about the charges and the December verdict were kept secret until the end of February due to a court-imposed suppression order. The media were barred from publishing any details about the case whatsoever, including that a gag order even existed. Such orders are relatively common in Australia in an attempt to maintain the sanctity of a jury trial, and any news organizations that break them can face heavy fines or jail time.
This article has been updated with reaction to the verdict and more details on the case.