VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Tuesday insisted on Australian Cardinal George Pell’s right to further defend himself after being convicted of molesting two choirboys in his homeland, but said Pope Francis was keeping in place local church restrictions forbidding one of his most trusted advisers from having contact with children while appeals run their course.
Acting Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti read a brief statement that called the news of the 77-year-old’s prelate’s conviction “painful.” He later tweeted confirmation that Pell “is no longer” the Holy See’s economy chief, but it was not immediately known if that was because Pell’s 5-year appointment had expired or he had been removed from office.
Gisotti took no questions from reporters about the Australian court’s verdict, which was delivered unanimously in December and appealed by Pell last week.
Due to a court order, news of the verdict couldn’t be published until Tuesday.
Pell risks a maximum prison term of 50 years for the conviction of the charges that he sexually abused the boys in a cathedral in the 1990s when he was archbishop of Melbourne. Sentencing hearings were set to begin in Melbourne on Wednesday.
The conviction of Pell, who had been appointed by Francis to be the Vatican’s treasurer and help reform the Holy See’s scandal-plagued financial institutions, risks further staining the pontiff’s already spotty record on cracking down on credibly accused clergy and over transparency on church handling of high-profile cases.
“In order to ensure the course of justice, the Holy Father has confirmed the precautionary measures which had been imposed by the local Ordinary on Cardinal George Pell when he returned to Australia,” Gisotti said.
The spokesman was referring to restrictions imposed by Australian church authorities after Pell went back to his homeland in 2017 to defend himself in the criminal case.
Gisotti noted that Pell “maintains his innocence.” But, the spokesman added that while awaiting the “definitive assessment of the facts,” Pell is “prohibited from exercising public ministry and from having any voluntary contact whatsoever with minors.”
Those measures include no celebration of Mass in public.
In 2016, reports emerged that Australian police were investigating abuse allegations against Pell that involved minors. But the pope then allowed the cardinal to stay on in his Vatican roles as Francis’ leading financial adviser and as the Holy See’s economy chief, and didn’t impose any restrictive measures.
Francis had tapped Pell as his economy minister in 2014, early in his papacy, even though some allegations against the Australian were known at that time. Pell’s term in that role runs out this year.
The verdict brings “painful news that, as we are well aware, has shocked many people, not only in Australia,” Gisotti said.
He added that “Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the last stage of appeal.”
Pope Francis has in some cases cast doubt on victims’ allegations of abuse and cover-ups against high-profile clergy, including a notable case in Chile.
Earlier this month, Francis expelled former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood after a Vatican trial found the churchman guilty of sexual abuse of minors and adults, including in the confessional.
The Pell and McCarrick cases drastically escalate the gravity and reach of the sexual abuse scandals for the Vatican, where last week bishops from around the world met to map prevention strategies.