Cardinal Pell to spend first night behind bars after bail application withdrawn

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with Cardinal George Pell, then Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, during World Youth Day Sydney 2008 in Sydney, Australia. Lawyers for Pell are expected to argue Wednesday that the 77-year-old should remain free while he appeals his conviction for child sex abuse. Full credit: World Youth Day/Handout/Getty Images

Disgraced Cardinal George Pell will be held in custody after his defense team unexpectedly withdrew a bail application on multiple counts of child sex abuse.

The former Vatican treasurer won’t be sentenced until March 13, meaning he could spend up to two weeks in jail before the hearing.

The close adviser to Pope Francis was found guilty in December of five charges of indecent acts and sexual penetration of a child, though the guilty verdict was suppressed until this week.

Chief Judge Peter Kidd has already indicated 77-year-old Pell will serve prison time for indecently assaulting two choirboys at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne in the late 1990s.

A jury found him guilty based on the testimony on one boy, now a man in his 30s, who gave evidence to a closed court that the cardinal, then Archbishop of Melbourne, forced him into oral sex in the priest’s sacristy after mass one Sunday.

The man told the court his friend was also sexually assaulted by Pell after he caught them drinking communion wine at the back of the cathedral. That boy didn’t tell anyone about the attack and died several years ago following an accidental drug overdose.

The surviving accuser’s identity cannot be revealed due to Australia’s laws around sexual abuse victims. In a statement Tuesday he asked for his privacy to be respected.

Two victims’ statements were submitted to the court Wednesday — one from the accuser and the other from the father of the deceased victim. Neither were released to the media.

The Vatican has changed its position twice since Pell’s guilty verdict, after announcing it would launch an internal investigation into the disgraced cardinal.

Initially the Vatican suggested that the church intended to wait to take action until the appeal — which has been launched by Pell’s team — had ended.

Usually an investigation would lead to a canonical trial, but in this instance the investigators can skip the trial and directly ask the Pope to defrock Pell if they feel the evidence strongly indicates guilt. Any decision taken by the Pope is final, and not subject to appeal.

The investigation comes after the Vatican announced Tuesday night that Pell would no longer hold the position as Vatican treasurer.

‘Humiliating and degrading attack’

When Pell arrived at Melbourne’s County Court Wednesday, he was surrounded by reporters and jostled by some in the crowd who yelled insults and “go to hell.”

The hearing began with submissions from crown prosecutor Mark Gibson who said the attack on the boys was “humiliating and degrading.” He said it was a “breach of trust” by someone in a position of power who had a duty of care to children singing in the choir.

Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter argued strongly that the attack didn’t represent an “abuse of power.”

Judge Kidd told the court he disagreed. “The relationship of trust has occurred the minute the boys were dropped off at the church. Every senior member of that church had the responsibility, including Cardinal Pell,” he said.

At one stage in the hours-long hearing, Richter described the assault as “a plain vanilla sexual penetration case, where the child is not volunteering or not actively participating.”

Outside the court, Chrissie Foster, the mother of two daughters raped by a priest, said the description was “outrageous” and “insulting.”

She and other victims sat and listened to Wednesday’s proceedings in a courtroom that was so crowded that some people had to stand, or take a seat in another court where the hearing was projected onto a screen.

‘Person of the highest character’

At least 10 character references were submitted to the court, which Richter said showed the disgraced priest was a “person of the highest character.” The referees included former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Richter said Pell’s attack on the two boys was “totally out of character” and happened on the spur of the moment.

However, in an ominous sign for the cardinal, Judge Kidd told the court it was “callous, brazen offending” that carried the assumption of impunity.

“How else did he think he was going to get away with this? He exploited two vulnerable boys. There was an element of force here … the way he grabbed the boys’ heads,” he said.

At the close of court Wednesday, the judge revoked Pell’s bail and remanded him in custody. The cardinal stood up and bowed to the judge, before officers escorted him out of the room.

Pell’s bail hearing had been set for Wednesday afternoon, local time, at the court of appeal. No explanation has been given as to why the application was withdrawn.

‘The Catholic Church is not on trial’

Pell was required to attend the pre-sentencing hearing in order to provide an opportunity for the crown prosecutor and Pell’s defense team to put forward arguments for an appropriate sentence.

Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, Gibson told the court

Gibson said during the hearing that Pell had shown “no remorse or insight” into why he committed the crime, nor had he taken any responsibility for his actions. “A degree of callous indifference was displayed by the cardinal,” Gibson said.

Judge Kidd made it clear to the court he wouldn’t be influenced by recent debate around sex abuse committed by members of the Catholic Church. Last week, the issue was the subject of a high-level summit at the Vatican convened by Pope Francis.

“The Catholic Church is not on trial and I’m not imposing a sentence on the Catholic Church. I’m imposing a sentence on Cardinal Pell for what he did,” the judge said.

On Tuesday, the Vatican announced on Twitter that Pell would no longer hold the role of treasurer. Pell’s term expired last Sunday, on February 24, but the post was considered open until the Vatican said otherwise.

The announcement via tweet that Pell’s position would not be renewed is highly unusual. Major Vatican appointments or dismissals are normally the subject of an official communication by the Holy See Press Office with the approval of the Pope.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Vatican said Pell’s conviction was “painful news” but noted that an appeal had been filed and the cardinal had “reiterated his innocence.”

It said the Pope had confirmed that precautionary measures imposed when Pell returned to Australia would remain for now, including a ban of “exercising public ministry and from having any voluntary contact whatsoever with minors.”

‘Care, solidarity and support’

Survivors of child abuse were elated with Pell’s conviction and relieved that the testimony of one boy had been believed by a jury of 12 people.

However, many survivors told support groups that the conviction of such a high profile figure in the church had shown to them that the abuse scandal was more insidious than they feared.

The reaction in Pell’s hometown of Ballarat northwest of the Victorian capital Melbourne was swift.

St. Patrick’s College, where Pell attended school in the 1950s, removed Pell’s name from a building. The school has also drawn a black line through his name on the honor board that lists the names of past students who entered the priesthood.

“The jury’s verdict demonstrates that Cardinal Pell’s behaviors have not met the standards we expect of those we honor as role models for the young men we educate,” school principal John Crowley said in a statement. “The College also remains ever mindful of the victims and survivors who require our ongoing care, solidarity and support.”

On Tuesday night, ribbons were tied to the fence of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne where the attack took place. Protesters placed tape with the words “crime scene” across the gates.

Ribbons have been used as part of the “Loud Fence” campaign as a mark of respect for survivors of child sex abuse, and to draw attention to calls to ensure it never happens again.

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