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Australian Cardinal George Pell convicted of sexually assaulting two choirboys

Cardinal George Pell arrives at the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy’s credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up.

SYDNEY – Cardinal George Pell, one of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church, sexually assaulted two 13-year-old choirboys at a cathedral in the Australian city of Melbourne 22 years ago, according to a verdict by an Australian jury in December that had been suppressed by a gag order until now.

The boys were assaulted in two confrontations, in December 1996 and February 1997, according to prosecutors, after Pell had conducted Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

In the first occurrence, The Age newspaper reported, Pell caught the two boys drinking sacramental wine in a dressing room. He told the boys they were in trouble, exposed himself, pushed one of the boys close to his penis and then placed his penis in the other boy’s mouth, the court was told.

Pell then masturbated while he groped the second boy’s genitals, the court was told.

In the second occurrence, in 1997, one of the victims testified that Pell had pushed him against a wall in a hallway of the cathedral and squeezed his genitals. He reported the occurrence to police in 2015. The other boy died several years ago, The Age reported.

A jury convicted Pell on Dec. 11 of five charges, including sexual penetration of a child under 16, but media outlets were ordered that they could not publish the verdict until now. Pell will be forced to return to court Wednesday, when the judge, Peter Kidd, will hear evidence about his sentence. His bail will be revoked Wednesday, the judge said Tuesday morning, according to The Age.

The Catholic Church removed Pell from an influential position overseeing the Vatican’s finances after the accusations.

A judge placed a gag order on the December judgment because Pell was due to face a second trial this year on the alleged assault of boys at a swimming pool in Ballarat in the 1970s. Those charges have been dropped.

Pell’s case has triggered worldwide interest because of his seniority. He may be the most senior Catholic priest to have been convicted of sexual assault in the church’s history.

For Australians, the 77-year-old was a highly respected figure among Catholics and politically influential. He led what was considered a groundbreaking response to sexual abuse in the church in the 1990s.

But allegations against him surfaced a couple of years ago, and Pell was charged in June 2017. He denied guilt throughout.

The living victim, who cannot be identified under Australian law, said he had struggled with shame, loneliness and depression.

“Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon on my life,” he said in a statement issued through his lawyers. “At some point we realize that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust.”

He asked reporters to leave him alone and not approach his family, which he said he doesn’t want “swept into the spotlight.”

“I am not a spokesperson about child sexual abuse,” he said. “I am just a regular guy working to support and protect my family as best I can.”

Last week, Pope Francis convened a Vatican summit on tackling pedophilia to demonstrate the church’s determination to act against abusive priests across the world.

“In abuse and its concealment, the powerful (of the church) show themselves not as men of heaven but men of earth,” the pope said.

After three days of deliberation, the jury unanimously found Pell guilty of what his defense had described as “deranged falsehoods.”

On Tuesday, one of Pell’s lawyers, Paul Galbally, said the priest continued to maintain his innocence and had lodged an appeal.

“Although originally the cardinal faced allegations from a number of complainants, all charges except for those the subject of the appeal have now been either withdrawn, discharged or discontinued,” Galbally said outside the Melbourne courthouse. “He will not be commenting in the meantime.”

Despite the attempt to suppress news of the conviction last year, news quickly leaked. The Daily Beast published an article that was followed by coverage in The Washington Post. Australian newspapers published front-page articles reporting that an important person had been convicted of a serious crime, without mentioning Pell’s name or the specific charges against him.