Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys.
Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Feb. 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys.

ROME - The president of the Australian Bishops Conference, Mark Coleridge, and the Vatican reacted to the news of the conviction in Melbourne of Cardinal George Pell on historic sexual abuse charges, said the news has shocked many in Australia and around the world. 

The bombshell news about Cardinal Pell follows a four-day summit at the Vatican that Pope Francis called to deal with the continuing sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. 

Pope's Sex Abuse Summit: What It Did and Didn't Do

The latest news about clerical sexual abuse was described as "painful" by the Vatican on Tuesday morning. It was made public after an Australian court's suppression order was finally lifted about the December verdict in the case of Cardinal George Pell. 

The 77-year-old cardinal was one of Pope Francis's closest aides and the Vatican's Prefect of the Secreteriat for the Economy, or treasurer, until Sunday, when his five-year term expired. A Victoria County Court found him guilty of molesting two choir boys in Melbourne's Saint Patrick Cathedral in the 1990s. 

Pope Francis is flanked by Vatican spokesman Aless
Pope Francis is flanked by Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti, right, talking to journalists, during the flight from Rome to Panama City, Jan. 23, 2019.

Pell has always proclaimed his innocence, and his lawyers have lodged an appeal to the verdict. The Vatican's acting spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, reiterated the Holy See's "utmost respect of the Australian judicial authorities."

"Out of this respect, we await the outcome of the appeals process, recalling that Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence and has the right to defend himself until the last stage of appeal,” Gisotti said.

Pell is the most senior member of the Catholic Church worldwide to have been convicted of child sex offenses by a criminal court. He was found guilty on five charges.

Brisbane's Archbishop Mark Coleridge reads a state
Brisbane's Archbishop Mark Coleridge reads a statement to the media on the conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell for molesting two choir boys in the 1970s, in Rome, Feb. 26, 2019.

Reacting to news of the verdict, Coleridge, said the bishops also respected the Australian legal system, which would continue to judge the cardinal, and expressed hope that justice would be served through this process.

"In the meantime, we pray for all those who have been abused and for their loved ones, and we commit ourselves anew to doing everything possible to ensure that the church is a safe place for all, especially the young and the vulnerable,” Coleridge said.

Archbishop Coleridge, for his part, is also being investigated for his alleged handling of information on child sex abuse when he headed the archdiocese of Canberra. Coleridge attended last week's unprecedented summit at the Vatican on child sexual abuse by the clergy. In a homily he delivered at mass on Sunday, he urged for more transparency and accountability from the church, saying, "We will not go unpunished."

Pope Francis has in the past praised Pell for his honesty and response to the child sex abuse crisis. But in December, he decided to remove Pell from his council of advisers. It remains unclear whether Pell will be defrocked in the same way as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington.

The Vatican's spokesman also said that "in order to ensure the course of justice" and "while awaiting the definitive assessment of the facts" in Australia, Pope Francis had confirmed precautionary measures had already been taken against Pell. For the time being, he would be "prohibited from exercising public ministry and from having any voluntary contact whatsoever with minors."