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Cardinal George Pell abuse convictions are painful and shocking says Vatican

Cardinal George Pell leaves the county court in Melbourne. Picture by Andy Brownbill/AP
Associated Press Reporters

The "painful" news of Cardinal George Pell's conviction for molesting choirboys in Australia has shocked many people, a Vatican spokesman has said.

However, Alessandro Gisotti said the prelate "has reiterated his innocence" and that he has the right to defend himself until the last level of justice.

Acting Holy See spokesman Mr Gisotti read a statement to reporters at the Vatican but did not take questions.

He said Pope Francis has confirmed "precautionary measures" already taken against Pell.

These include a ban on him saying Mass in public and "as is the rule, contact in any way or form with minors".

The court verdict represented "painful news that, we are well aware, has shocked very many people, not only in Australia", Mr Gisotti said.

"As we have affirmed on other occasions, we restate the utmost respect for Australian judiciary authorities."

"In the name of this respect, we now await the outcome of the appeals trial, recalling that Cardinal Pell has reiterated his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the final level" of Australia's justice system.

"While awaiting the definitive judgment, we unite ourselves to the Australian bishops in praying for all the victims of abuse, reiterating our commitment to do everything possible so that the church is a safe home for all, especially for children and the most vulnerable," Mr Gisotti said.

Pell is the most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse.

He has been convicted in Australia of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass.

Pell, Pope Francis' top financial adviser and the Vatican's economy minister, bowed his head but then regained his composure as the 12-member jury delivered unanimous verdicts in the Victoria state county court on December 11 after more than two days of deliberation.

The court had until Tuesday forbidden publication of any details about the trial.

Pell faces a potential maximum 50-year prison term after a sentencing hearing that begins on Wednesday. He lodged an appeal last week against the convictions.

The convictions were confirmed days after Pope Francis concluded his extraordinary summit of Catholic leaders summoned to Rome for a tutorial on preventing clergy sexual abuse and protecting children from predator priests.

The jury convicted Pell of abusing two 13-year-old boys whom he had caught drinking sacramental wine in a rear room of a Melbourne cathedral in late 1996, as hundreds of worshippers were streaming out of Sunday services.

Pell, now 77 but 55 at the time, had just been named the most senior Catholic in Melbourne.

The jury also found him guilty of indecently assaulting one of the boys in a corridor more than a month later.

Pell had maintained his innocence throughout, describing the accusations as "vile and disgusting conduct" that went against everything he believed in.

His lawyer had told the jury that only a "mad man" would take the risk of abusing boys in such a public place.

Both he and Chief Judge Peter Kidd urged the jury of eight men and four women not to punish Pell for all the failings of the Catholic Church.

"You must not scapegoat Cardinal Pell," Mr Kidd told the jury.

Along with Ireland and the US, 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, who walked to and from court throughout his month-long trial with a crutch under his right arm, was released on bail to undergo surgical knee replacements in Sydney on December 14.

Prosecutor Mark Gibson did not oppose bail, saying the surgery would be more easily managed outside the prison system.

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.

Neither boy can be identified.

"I didn't tell anyone at the time because I didn't want to jeopardise anything. I didn't want to rock the boat with my family, my schooling, my life," the other victim told the jurors.

The victim said after the conviction was revealed that he has experienced "shame, loneliness, depression and struggle".

In his statement, the man said it had taken him years to understand the impact the assault had on his life.

Lawyer Lisa Flynn said the father of the second victim, who died at the age of 31, is planning to sue the church or Pell individually once the appeal is resolved.

Pell's lawyer Robert Richter initially wanted details of the trial suppressed until his appeal was heard, but later withdraw the application.

Details of the trial had been suppressed because until Tuesday, Pell had faced a second trial in April on charges that he indecently assaulted two boys aged nine or 10 and 11 or 12 as a young priest in the late 1970s.

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

Another of Pell's lawyers, Paul Galbally, said Pell continued to maintain his innocence.

Pell pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four counts of wilfully committing an indecent act with or in the presence of a child under 16 in late 1996 and early 1997.

The lifting of the gag order comes after Francis charted a new course for the Catholic Church to confront clergy sexual abuse and cover-up.

In October, Pope Francis removed Pell as a member of his informal cabinet. He technically remains prefect of the Vatican's economy ministry, but his five-year term expires this year and is not expected to be renewed.

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