Pope's former top adviser guilty of sexual offences against young boys

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details. An Australian court has found Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican treasurer and a former top adviser to Pope Francis, guilty on five charges of sexual offences committed more than two decades ago against two 13-year-old boys.

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details

Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Pell was convicted in December 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. (Andy Brownbill/Associated Press)

A former top adviser to Pope Francis has been found guilty of sexual offences committed more than two decades ago against two 13-year-old boys. Cardinal George Pell is the most senior catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse. 

The verdict was made public on Tuesday in Melbourne, following the lifting of a suppression order on the case. A jury in the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne found Pell guilty on Dec. 11 last year following a four-week trial.

Pell, 77, was convicted on five charges for molesting the two choirboys in the priests' sacristy in 1996, moments after celebrating mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, where Pell was archbishop. 

One victim died of a heroin overdose in 2014 without ever complaining of the abuse, and even denying to his suspicious mother that he had been molested while he was part of the choir.

The other victim, now 34 years old, told the court that Pell orally raped him, then crouched and fondled the complainant's genitals while masturbating.

"I was young and I didn't really know what had happened to me. I didn't really know what it was, if it was normal," the complainant told the court.

Neither boy can now be identified, because it is illegal to name victims of sexual assault.

Each of the five offences carries a maximum 10 years in jail. Pell is due to be sentenced in early March.

Sex abuse survivors and members of ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse) hold a wooden cross as they march in downtown Rome Saturday during the four-day summit on preventing clergy sexual abuse. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

Vatican spokesperson Alessandro Gisoti said Tuesday the "painful" news of Pell's conviction had shocked many, but added that the prelate "has reiterated his innocence and has the right to defend himself" until the last level of justice.

Details of the trial had been suppressed because Pell had faced a second trial scheduled for April on charges that he indecently assaulted two boys, one who was 9 or 10, and another who was 10 or 11, as a young priest in the late 1970s in a public pool in his Australian hometown of Ballarat.

Prosecutor Fran Dalziel told the court on Tuesday that the Ballarat charges had been dropped and asked for the suppression order to be lifted.

The verdict was made public as the Catholic Church tries to deal with an ongoing, and growing, child sexual abuse crisis, following scandals in the United States, Canada, Chile, Germany and Australia.

Cardinal George Pell is now the highest ranking Catholic clergyman worldwide convicted of child sex offences. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

Pope Francis closed out a conference on sexual abuse on Sunday calling for an "all out battle" against a crime that should be "erased from the face of the earth."

The Vatican said in December that Francis had removed Pell, 77, from his group of close advisers, without commenting on the trial. Pell, who took indefinite leave in 2016 from his role as economy minister for the Vatican to fight the charges, was not called to the stand in the trial.

Instead, the jury was shown in open court a video recording of an interview Australian police held with Pell in Rome in October 2016 in which he strenuously denied the allegations.

The jury was also shown, behind closed doors, a video recording of the surviving victim's testimony.

Judge Peter Kidd had extended bail for Pell, who had been walking with a crutch throughout the trial, to allow him to undergo double-knee surgery in Sydney in December. His bail had been extended since then.

Along with Ireland and the U.S., Australia has been devastated by the impact of the clerical abuse scandal, with a Royal Commission inquiry finding that 4,444 people reported they had been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia between 1980 and 2015.

Pell's own hometown of Ballarat had such a high incidence of abuse — and, survivors say, a correlated higher-than-average incidence of suicide — that the city warranted its own case study in the Royal Commission report.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News