Melbourne — The most senior Catholic convicted of child sex abuse was sentenced Wednesday to six years in prison for molesting two choirboys in an Australian cathedral in a crime the judge said showed "staggering arrogance."
Cardinal George Pell must serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he is eligible for parole, according to the judge's order. The five convictions against Pell carried a maximum possible sentence of 10 years each.
"In my view, your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance," Victoria state County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd said in handing down the sentence.
Pope Francis' former finance minister was convicted by a unanimous jury verdict in December of orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy's 13-year-old friend in the late 1990s, months after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne. A court order had suppressed media reporting the news until last month.
The 77-year-old denies the allegations and will appeal his convictions in the Victoria Court of Appeal on June 5. It was not immediately clear if he will also appeal the sentence.
For the first time in Pell's many court appearances since he returned to Australia from the Vatican to face abuse charges, Pell wore an open-necked shirt without a cleric's collar. He was also not wearing a cardinal's gold ring, which might reflect strict rules on jewelry in the state penal system.
In explaining his sentencing decision, the judge said Pell had led an "otherwise blameless life." Kidd said he believed given Pell's age and lack of any other criminal record, the cardinal posed no risk of re-offending.
The judge also took pains to note that he was sentencing Pell for the offenses on which the cardinal had been convicted — and not for the sins of the Catholic Church.
"As I directed the jury who convicted you in this trial, you are not to be made a scapegoat for any failings or perceived failings of the Catholic Church," Kidd said.
But the judge also said that Pell had abused his position of power and had shown no remorse for his crimes. Kidd described the assaults as egregious, degrading and humiliating to the victims.
Pell showed no emotion during the hourlong hearing and barely moved throughout. He stood silently with his hands behind his back as the judge read his sentence. Pell signed documents that registered him for life as a serious sexual offender before he was led from the dock by four prison officers.
In a statement, one of Pell's victims called the judge's sentence "meticulous and considered."
"It is hard for me to allow myself to feel the gravity of this moment, the moment when the sentence is handed down, the moment when justice is done," the man said in a statement read outside court by one of his lawyers, Vivian Waller. "It is hard for me, 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. However, there is no rest for me. Everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal."
The father of one of Pell's victims who died of a heroin overdose in 2014 at the age of 31 paid tribute to his son's childhood friend for speaking out.
"I commend the young fellow who has come forward," the father said. "He kept it in for a long time and that would've been hell for him. Absolute hell."
The father said he was "really appreciative and thankful that he did come forward."
"I want to give him a hug. He was a fabulous little kid. He's a fabulous man now," the father said.
The father also described the sentence as "a disappointment."
The father is considering suing Pell and the church over the abuse.
Australian law prohibits the publication of sex crime victims' identities, so the father also cannot be identified.
Abuse victims' groups also expressed disappointment that the punishment was not harsher.
The sentence "makes a mockery of the concept of true accountability and is not a sentence commensurate with the crimes committed and the harm reaped," Blue Knot Foundation president Cathy Kezelman said in a statement.
SNAP, a U.S. support group for victim of clergy abuse, described the sentences as "comparatively light."
"We hope that the sentence imposed on Cardinal George Pell will provide some measure of healing to the living survivor of his abuse and comfort and closure for the family of Pell's non-surviving victim," SNAP said in a statement.
The judge said Pell's age was a significant factor in determining his sentence.
Pell suffers from hypertension that is exacerbated by stress and has a dual-chamber pacemaker, the judge said.
Pell used a cane to leave the court, after having both knees surgically replaced in December.
Pell's sentencing comes on the sixth anniversary of Francis' election as pope. Pell was in the conclave that elected him and remains eligible for any potential future conclave until age 80 or unless he is removed.
Asked by a reporter outside court after the sentencing whether the case against Pell amounted to a witch hunt, his lawyer Robert Richter gave a rueful smile.
"No comment — you be the judge," Richter replied.
After centuries of impunity, cardinals from Australia to Chile and points in between are facing justice in both the Vatican and government courts for their own sexual misdeeds or for having shielded abusers under their watch.
Last week, France's senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted of failing to report a known pedophile priest to police. Barbarin was given a six-month suspended sentence.
Pope Francis last month defrocked the onetime leader of the American church after an internal investigation determined Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually molested children and adult men. It was the first time a cardinal had been defrocked over the child abuse scandal.
The surviving victim made a statement against Pell in 2015 — a year after the other victim's death — to a police task force set up to investigate allegations that arose from a state parliamentary inquiry into handling of child abuse by religious and other nongovernment organizations. The task force also investigates allegations made to a similar national inquiry, called the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Pell gave evidence by video link from Rome to the royal commission, the nations' highest level of inquiry, in 2016 about his time as a church leader in Melbourne and in his hometown of Ballarat.
The four-year royal commission found in its 2017 report that the Melbourne Archdiocese had ignored or covered up allegations of child abuse by seven priests in a bid to protect the church's reputation and avoid scandal.
The royal commission was critical of Pell's predecessor in Melbourne, Archbishop Frank Little, who died in 2008. It made no findings against Pell, saying in a redacted report that it would not publish information that could "prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings."
Australian police interviewed Pell about the survivor's allegations in a Rome hotel in 2016. Pell described the allegations at the time as "vile and disgusting conduct" that went against everything he believed in.
Pell voluntarily returned to Australia in 2017 to face an array of child abuse charges, most of which have since been dropped. The full details of those allegations were suppressed by court orders.
Pell was once the highest-ranking Catholic in Australia's second-largest city, where he is now a prisoner held in protective security. Pedophiles such as Pell are typically separated from the main prison populations in Australia.
Pell was 55 years old and had recently established a compensation plan for Melbourne's victims of clergy abuse when he abused the two boys at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1996. The survivor testified that Pell had walked in on the boys swigging altar wine in a back room after a Sunday Mass.
The judge rejected Richter's submission that no person thinking rationally would molest two 13-year-old boys in a cathedral sacristy after a Mass with the doors open.
"To offend in such a risky and brazen manner, I infer that, for whatever reason, you were in fact prepared to take on such risks. I conclude that your decision to offend was a reasoned, albeit perverted one," Kidd said.
More than a month later, Pell abused the survivor again, squeezing the boy's genitals as they passed in a cathedral corridor after a Mass.
The judge said the assault was committed with "a degree of physical aggression and venom."