MELBOURNE, Australia - Australian Cardinal George Pell, once one of Pope Francis' closest advisers, has been found guilty of sexually assaulting 2 choirboys, becoming the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex crimes.
An Australian jury unanimously found Pell guilty in December on 1 count of sexual abuse and 4 counts of indecent assault against 2 boys at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s.
Pell, now aged 77, was accused of cornering the boys -- then aged 12 and 13 -- in the cathedral's sacristy following Sunday mass and forcing them to perform a sex act on him.
The cleric, who has remained free on bail, denied all the charges and an initial trial ended with a hung jury in September, but he was convicted on retrial on Dec. 11.
A wide-ranging suppression order from the presiding judge had prevented the media from reporting even the existence of court proceedings and the ensuing trials since May.
The order was lifted during a court hearing on Tuesday when prosecutors decided against proceeding with a second trial for separate allegations against Pell dating from the 1970s.
Advocacy group bishopaccountability.org said Pell was the "first bishop convicted of physical sex crimes involving minors".
"Pell's conviction is groundbreaking," its co-director Anne Barrett Doyle said.
The Vatican said the verdict was "painful news" and that it had the "utmost respect" for the Australian justice system.
"It is painful news that, we are well aware, has shocked many people, not just in Australia," the Vatican statement said, adding that it would await the outcome of the appeal process.
"Cardinal George Pell has always maintained his innocence and continues to do so," said a statement issued by his lawyers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was "deeply shocked" by Pell's conviction and that the justice system had shown "no Australian is above the law".
'ROT IN HELL'
Of the 2 choirboys that Pell was found to have assaulted, 1 died in 2014 of a drug overdose that his family blamed on the trauma he suffered.
The second victim said in a statement issued by his lawyer Tuesday that the ongoing legal process was stressful and "not over yet."
"Like many survivors I have experienced shame, loneliness, depression and struggle. Like many survivors it has taken me years to understand the impact upon my life," said the man, who has not been publicly identified.
"At some point we realize that we trusted someone we should have feared and we fear those genuine relationships that we should trust."
Outside the County Court of Victoria, supporters of other abuse survivors yelled "monster" and "rot in hell" as Pell, walking slowly with the aid of a cane, got into a car after the hearing concluded.
A pre-sentencing hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, when Pell is expected to be remanded in custody. He faces a maximum 25 years in prison if his appeal is rejected, prosecutors have said.
Pell sat impassively during Tuesday's court hearing, wearing a beige sport coat over a dark shirt and clerical collar.
His conviction is another hammer blow to the Church, which has struggled to convince the world it is serious about tackling widespread child abuse and pedophilia.
Pell was appointed by Pope Francis to manage the Vatican finances in 2014 and was one of the pontiff's closest advisers as a member of the so-called C9 council until being dropped from that body the day after his December 11 conviction.
On Tuesday, the Vatican said Pell was no longer its economy minister. Such appointments usually have a 5-year term.
Just 2 days ago, the pope closed a historic Vatican summit on sexual abuse by priests by likening the abuse to "human sacrifice."
But critics say the institution is still moving too slowly in dealing with a problem that is global in scale and, at a minimum, spans decades.
The case has caused consternation in Australia, where Pell had once been praised by luminaries from a prime minister down, and was a leading conservative voice on issues ranging from gay marriage to climate change.
For decades, Pell denied being an abuser or covering up sex abuse, but he did admit he "mucked up" in dealing with pedophile priests in the state of Victoria.
During his trial, defense lawyers ridiculed the charges against him, arguing that the cathedral sacristy was a hive of activity following Sunday mass and that it would have been impossible to assault choirboys in such circumstances.
The court had heard that Pell abused the 2 boys after catching them swigging from a bottle of sacramental wine. He exposed himself and forced one of them to perform oral sex on him, and fondled the boy's genitals while masturbating.
Australia's media has strongly protested against the suppression order imposed on the case. Following Pell's December conviction, some international media reported the verdict, while local newspapers published cryptic front-page stories hinting that a prominent Australian had been found guilty of serious crimes.
Australian media said Tuesday that they subsequently received "show cause" letters from the court explaining why they should not face contempt charges for their reporting on the case.
Around 1 in 5 Australians are Catholic, roughly 5 million people.
A 5-year royal commission inquiry into child abuse said in a report issued last year that tens of thousands of children had been sexually abused in Australian institutions including churches.