The Vatican has reversed its earlier position and opened an investigation into allegations against Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, who was taken to jail after a plea hearing Wednesday.
The decision was made by Pope Francis given Pell’s high standing, reported the Jesuit America Magazine.
The 77-year-old Pell will be held at maximum security prison until his March 13 sentencing on five convictions of sexually abusing minors, reported the Guardian.
Pell “will be kept in protective custody and remain alone for up to 23 hours a day,” it reported.
Pell was found guilty by a jury in December of sexual abusing two 13-year-old choir boys in 1996. The formal convictions are one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16 and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.
Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.
A number of commentators, Catholic and otherwise, have condemned Pell’s prosecution as an anti-Catholic witch hunt instigated by police and media.
Pell’s first trial on the charges ended September with a hung jury, with 10 of 12 jurors supporting his acquittal.
Judge Peter Kidd granted Pell bail during the trials so he could have knee replacement surgery, but said he would revoke it Wednesday.
Pell’s lawyers withdrew a bail application scheduled at the Court of Appeal, stating in a release that Pell “believes it is appropriate from him to await sentencing,” reported Australian newspaper The Age.
They have filed an appeal that will “be pursued following sentence,” the lawyers stated.
Pell is the most senior cleric to be convicted of sexual offenses, and as Vatican treasurer and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals (C9) was considered the third-most powerful man in the Vatican when he was charged with multiple counts of sexual offenses in July 2017.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti initially said the Holy See would wait until Pell’s appeal ended before taking action, according to CruxNow.
The pope “confirmed the precautionary measures which had been imposed by the local Ordinary” on Pell when he returned to Australia in 2017 to answer to the charges, Gisotti said Tuesday.
That is, Pell is “prohibited from exercising public ministry and from having any voluntary contact whatsoever with minors,” he said.
But Gisotti announced Wednesday that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) “will now handle the case following the procedure and within the time established by canonical norm,” reported Reuters.
He also confirmed Pell is no longer Vatican treasurer. Pell’s term expired Sunday and the pope has to yet name a successor, Reuters reported.
The CDF will decide based on its investigations whether to proceed to a canonical trial or administratively, that is, forgo a trial and ask the pope to defrock Pell, an eventuality from which there is no appeal, reported CNN.
The Vatican announced in mid-December that Pope Francis had removed Pell and two other cardinals from the C9 in October, reported CruxNow.
Pell was convicted on the testimony of one complainant who alleged Pell discovered him and another choirboy in the sacristy of Melbourne’s Cathedral drinking sacramental wine after they snuck away from the procession following High Mass on Sunday, and that Pell then orally raped him and sexually molested him and the other chorister — who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose and who denied ever being sexual assaulted.
Pell’s lawyer, Robert Richter, argued that the complainant’s story was “fantasy;” the sacristy would have been a “beehive of activity” after High Mass, Pell would not have been alone at any time, nor would he to have been able to manipulate his robes to expose himself as the complainant alleges.
Richter attempted Wednesday to persuade Kidd to give Pell a lenient sentence.
But his efforts were “disastrous” and have “thrown Pell’s supporters into despair,” according to the Catholic Herald.
Richter maintained he had to make arguments in the context of Pell’s guilty conviction, and so argued that the offense Pell was convicted of, but steadfastly denies committing, was “plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating.”
That and Richter’s arguments brought gasps from spectators in the crowded courtroom, the Guardian reported.
“Whatever his reasons, his description of a horrific attack on a minor (which Richter was not conceding actually happened) will do nothing to persuade the Australian public of Pell’s innocence,” noted the Herald.
“The situation is therefore a nightmare for the Catholic Church.”
Richter’s arguments also did not appear to convince Kidd, who described Pell’s behavior as “callous, brazen offending” and “shocking conduct,” the Guardian reported.
Pell has steadfastly maintained his innocence, describing the charges as “falsehood and garbage.”