MELBOURNE: Cardinal George Pell has been jailed for six years after being convicted of sexually abusing two boys in Australia.
The former Vatican treasurer is the most senior Catholic figure ever to be found guilty of sexual offences against children.
Pell abused the 13-year-old choir boys in a Melbourne cathedral in 1996, a jury ruled last year.
The cardinal, 77, maintains his innocence and has lodged an appeal.
In sentencing Pell on Wednesday, a judge said the cleric had committed “a brazen and forcible sexual attack on the two victims”.
“Your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance,” said Judge Peter Kidd.
In December, a jury unanimously convicted Pell of one charge of sexually penetrating a child under 16, and four counts of committing an indecent act on a child under 16.
His conviction has rocked the Catholic Church, where he had been one of the Pope’s closest advisers.
Pell will be eligible for parole after three years and eight months. His appeal will be heard in June.
One of Pell’s victims said it was hard “to take comfort in this outcome” with the cleric’s appeal looming.
What did the court hear previously?
Prosecutors said that Pell had abused the boys following a mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996, when he was archbishop of Melbourne.
After telling them they were in trouble for drinking communion wine, Pell forced each boy into indecent acts, the court heard. He abused one of the boys again in 1997.
The trial heard testimony from one of the victims. The other died of a drug overdose in 2014.
What did the judge say?
Judge Kidd said Pell’s crimes were particularly callous because of a “stark” power imbalance.
“You were the archbishop of St Patrick’s Cathedral – no less – and you sexually abused two choir boys within that cathedral,” he told the County Court of Victoria.
“You even told your victims to be quiet because they were crying.”
The judge said he had considered Pell’s age and health in determining the sentence. Each of the five charges had carried a maximum 10-year jail term.
Judge Kidd added that Pell should not “be made a scapegoat” for wider failings within the Catholic Church.
He took more than an hour to deliver his remarks. Unusually for local courts, they were broadcast live – in what officials said was a commitment to “open justice”.
Leaning on his walking stick and dressed without his clerical collar, George Pell arrived in the courtroom knowing he faced a significant prison sentence.
He nodded towards a few supporters, but they were significantly outnumbered by the many campaigners and abuse survivors who had come to witness his downfall.
When his sentence was handed down, many in the court turned to look at Pell, searching for any flicker of emotion.
But Pell remained impassive throughout, staring straight ahead, and then bowing towards the judge before being led away.
How will Pell appeal against the verdict?
His lawyers argue that the jury’s verdict was “unreasonable” because it relied too heavily on the testimony of one victim.
They have also asserted that Pell was wrongly prevented from entering his plea before a jury, and that a defence animation should have been allowed as evidence at the trial.
A court will begin considering the appeal on 5 June.
What’s been the reaction?
Pell’s surviving victim – who cannot be named – welcomed the sentence but said it was difficult “to feel the gravity of this moment”.
“There is no rest for me. Everything is overshadowed by the forthcoming appeal,” he said in a statement read by his lawyer.
The father of the deceased victim said he was disappointed in the sentence, but was glad to see Pell jailed.
“I watched him walking out of that court and I thought to myself: ‘Well, I’m going to sleep in my bed tonight, where are you sleeping?'” he told reporters.
Last month, the Vatican described Pell’s conviction as “painful news” that had “shocked many”, and confirmed he was prohibited from public ministry. He was removed from the Pope’s inner circle in December.
The Church noted, however, that the cleric had a right to “defend himself to the last degree”.
What is the wider picture?
The sexual abuse of children was rarely discussed in public before the 1970s, and it was not until the 1980s that the first cases of molestation by priests came to light, in the US and Canada.
In the decades since, evidence of widespread abuse has emerged globally.
Pope Francis has established a committee to tackle sexual abuses. At a landmark Church summit on paedophilia last month, he said clergy guilty of abuse were “tools of Satan”.
But critics say he could do more to combat paedophiles and those who conceal abuse.