ROME - The Vatican’s former treasurer, Australian Cardinal George Pell, has been sentenced to prison for sexually abusing choir boys. Handing down the sentence Wednesday, the judge said Pell would be listed as a sex offender for the rest of his life. Pope Francis will now have to decide what will happen to his former close advisor.
The 77-year-old cardinal was sentenced in Australia to six years by Victoria County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd. The judge read the sentence, making it clear Pell would immediately start serving time in prison, although he has lodged an appeal that will be heard in June.
"I set a non-parole period of three years and eight months," said Kidd. "That means you will become eligible to apply for parole after serving this non-parole period. Your release on parole will be a matter entirely for the parole board."
No reaction was immediately forthcoming from the Vatican. The sentence came down on the very same day Pope Francis marked six years as head of the Catholic Church. He is on a weeklong spiritual retreat outside the Vatican, as is customary for him at the start of the Christian season of Lent.
Pope Francis could decide to defrock Cardinal Pell, as the pontiff did in February with the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, for similar issues. No decision is likely to be made until Pell's appeal is heard. And Pell is not expected to return to Rome unless he is successful in overturning his conviction.
In the event he is successful, it is unlikely Pell will be welcomed back in Rome. The more likely scenario is that he will no longer serve in any Church role but given his age and failing health, he likely will be granted a pension. Under Vatican rules, Church officials normally resign at the age of 75 although the pope can choose to extend their service.
If the conviction is upheld on appeal and Pope Francis decides to defrock him, Pell stands to lose not only his freedom for some time but also the perks he enjoyed as a senior official of the Vatican, namely a home close to Saint Peter’s Square and a car and driver. Whether he would be able to maintain any financial support and health care would have to be discussed. He would no longer be allowed to celebrate Church sacraments.