Cardinal George Pell may spend at least three years and eight months in jail after being convicted of sexually abusing two 13-year-old choirboys in 1996, with the judge describing his offending as “brazen and forceful” and “breathtakingly arrogant” because he believed the victims would never complain.
The 77-year-old was sentenced to six years, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months.
Pell was convicted last month on five charges of child sexual assault, following a committal hearing, a mistrial and a trial. He has lodged an appeal, which will be heard in June.
Chief judge Peter Kidd said the sentence carried a real possibility that Pell would not live to be released. “Facing jail at your age in these circumstances must be an awful state of affairs for you,” he said.
Kidd’s sentencing before Melbourne’s county court on Wednesday morning was broadcast live around the world. Once the financial controller of the Vatican and confidant to the pope, Pell sat in the dock dressed in a black shirt and beige jacket, using a walking cane, and stared straight at Kidd, expressionless. Two police officers sat either side of him, and one directly behind.
In his sentencing remarks Kidd said Pell’s offending had “a significant and long lasting impact” on the complainant’s wellbeing. “I take into account the profound impact your offending has had [on the complainant’s] life.” Kidd referred to the complainant only as “J” throughout his sentencing remarks, and to the other victim, who died in 2014, as “R”.
“During the incident, J and R were crying and sobbing,” Kidd said.
“In my view, the first episode in the priest’s sacristy involved a brazen and forceful sexual attack on the two victims. The acts were sexually graphic. Both victims were visibly and audibly distressed during this offending.”
Each of the five charges – one of sexual penetration of a minor under the age of 16 and four of an indecent act with a child under the age of 16 – carried a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment. Pell will be a registered sex offender for life, and will be required to allow police to collect forensic samples from him. He stood as the sentence was read.
The judge rejected sentencing arguments put forward by Pell’s defence team that, if the offending had occurred, Pell must have experienced a moment of irrationality.
“Your decision to offend was a reasoned, albeit perverted, one,” Kidd said. “Certainly you were confident your victims would not complain … the offending which the jury has found you have engaged in was, on any view, breathtakingly arrogant.
“As archbishop, you did have a relationship of approval in relation to the choirboys. In part, the choirboys were performing to please you as archbishop. The choirboys were the least powerful and the most subordinate individuals at the cathedral. The power imbalance between the victims and all the senior church leaders or officials, yourself included, was stark.”
Kidd reinforced the point several times during the sentencing, saying: “I conclude that your decision to offend was a reasoned, albeit perverted, one, and I reach that conclusion to the criminal standard.”
He said any breach of this trust should be seen by the law as “grave”.
Kidd said he had sentenced Pell “without fear or favour”.
“There has been extraordinary and widespread publicity and public comment which has surrounded you for a number of years,” Kidd said. “Some of this publicity has involved strong, trenchant and sometimes emotional criticism of you. Indeed, it is fair to say that in some sections of the community you are a publicly vilified figure. We have witnessed, outside of this court and within our community, examples of a witch-hunt or a lynch mob mentality in relation to you, Cardinal Pell. I utterly condemn such behaviour.”
Kidd made it clear to Pell he was sentencing him only on the basis of the offending considered by the jury and their subsequent conviction. He said his sentencing had nothing to do with the Catholic church and its failings, or community attitudes towards Pell.
“In my opinion, all of the offending across both episodes is made significantly more serious because of the surrounding or contextual circumstances – namely the breach of trust and abuse of power,” Kidd told him. “This elevates the gravity of each of the offences. In my view, your conduct was permeated by staggering arrogance.”
However, Kidd acknowledged Pell’s risk of reoffending was low, given his age and poor health.
Outside the court about a dozen protesters gathered in both support and defence of Pell. Pell was led to and from the dock through a back entrance of the court.
At the sentencing hearing on 27 February, Pell’s defence barrister, Robert Richter, had argued Pell’s sentence should be on the “lower end” because there were “no aggravating circumstances” to one of the offences. It was “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where the child is not actively participating”, he said. Richter later apologised for that description.
Prosecutor Mark Gibson argued Pell should be given a significant sentence, describing the offences as “humiliating and degrading towards each boy”.
At the trial, the complainant, now 35, said he and the another 13-year-old choirboy separated from the choir procession as it exited the church building. He and the other boy sneaked back into the church corridors and entered the priest’s sacristy, a place they knew they should not be. There they found some sacramental wine and began to drink. The complainant alleged that Pell had walked in on them.
Pell then manoeuvred his robes to expose his penis. He stepped forward, grabbed the other boy by the back of his head and lowered the boy’s head towards his penis, the complainant told the court. Pell then did the same thing to the complainant, orally raping him. Once he had finished, he ordered the complainant to remove his pants, before fondling the complainant’s penis and masturbating himself.
“There is an added layer of degradation and humiliation that each of your victims must have felt in knowing that their abuse had been witnessed by the other,” Kidd said.
A few weeks later Pell attacked the complainant again as he passed him in the church corridor, pushing him against the wall and squeezing his genitals hard through his choir robes, before walking off.