GE­ORGE Pell could be jailed as early as to­day af­ter be­ing con­victed of vile sex­ual of­fences against young choir­boys while he was Arch­bishop of Mel­bourne.

Pell was granted at least one fi­nal night of free­dom last night, af­ter a sup­pres­sion or­der ban­ning any re­port­ing of his case was lifted.

But the County Court’s chief judge, Peter Kidd, has flagged re- mand­ing him when he reap­pears to­day for a pre-sen­tence hear­ing.

Car­di­nal Pell, 77, is fac­ing the prospect of a sig­nif­i­cant jail term.

Le­gal sources say he can ex­pect to spend sev­eral years be­hind bars.

Aus­tralia’s most se­nior Catholic leader looked stunned when, in De­cem­ber, the County Court jury de- liv­ered unan­i­mous guilty ver­dicts on five charges af­ter a five-week trial.

The jury de­lib­er­ated for 3½ days be­fore reach­ing their ver­dicts.

Pell was bailed fol­low­ing the ver­dicts so he could have a dou­ble-knee re­place­ment in Syd­ney.

A gag or­der pre­vent­ing pub­li­ca­tion of the con­vic­tions was im­posed so as not to prej­u­dice a jury to hear fur­ther charges against Pell.

It was lifted af­ter pros­e­cu­tors yes­ter­day dropped those charges.

The Vat­i­can last night de­scribed Pell’s con­vic­tions as “painful’’ and said: “We re­peat that we have max­i­mum re­spect to­wards the Aus­tralian ju­di­cial au­thor­i­ties.’’

But spokesman Alessan­dro Gisotti said the Vat­i­can would await “the out­come of the ap­peal process, re­mem­ber­ing Car­di­nal Pell has re­peated his in­no­cence and de­serves the right to de­fend him­self’’. He said “pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures” al­ready in place on the or­der of Pope Fran­cis con­tin­ued to ban Pell from any con­tact with mi­nors.

Pell’s le­gal team lodged an ap­peal last week and to­day hopes to se­cure bail in an ap­pli­ca­tion listed be­fore the Court of Ap­peal for 2.30pm.

Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son said the ver­dicts “had af­firmed no Aus­tralian is above the law”.

He said: “Like most Aus­tralians, I am deeply shocked at the crimes of which Ge­orge Pell has been con­victed.

“I re­spect the fact that this case is un­der ap­peal, but it is the vic­tims and their fam­i­lies I am think­ing of to­day, and all who have suf­fered from sex­ual abuse by those they should have been able to trust, but couldn’t.”

Mel­bourne Arch­bishop Peter A. Comen­soli also said his thoughts were with vic­tims.

“Sur­prised and shaken” by the news, he said: “An ap­peal against the ver­dict has been lodged. It is im­por­tant that we now await the out­come of this ap­peal, re­spect­ful of the le­gal pro­ceed­ings.”

Un­til then, Pell will likely swap the pala­tial sur­rounds of the Vat­i­can, which he has called home since 2014, for a cell. Sources say his high pro­file will see him be­ing kept in lock­down for all but an hour a day.

Pell had been due to face trial on fur­ther al­le­ga­tions he in­de­cently as­saulted boys at a Bal­larat swim­ming pool in the 1970s. But af­ter Judge Kidd made a rul­ing ex­clud­ing ev­i­dence pros­e­cu­tors con­sid­ered cru­cial to their case, they dropped those charges yes­ter­day, clear­ing the way for the gag or­der to be lifted.

The jury at last year’s trial was un­der strict in­struc­tions not to make Pell a scape­goat for the fail­ings of the Catholic Church in its han­dling of child sex­ual abuse.

The jury of eight men and four women that found Pell guilty in­cluded a church pas­tor, a chef, a li­brar­ian and a teacher. It was the sec­ond jury to de­lib­er­ate in the case. An­other jury was un­able to reach a unan­i­mous, or even a ma­jor­ity 11-1, ver­dict.

By its ver­dicts, the sec­ond jury ac­cepted Pell abused two young choir­boys af­ter a Sun­day solemn mass in­side St Pa­trick’s Cathe­dral, af­ter his first mass as arch­bishop there in 1996.

Only one of the two gave ev­i­dence. The other, who had de­nied be­ing abused by any priest, died sev­eral years ago.

The sur­vivor, now in his 30s, said he and his friend had been young so­pra­nos on schol­ar­ship at St Kevin’s Col­lege, obliged to sing in the cathe­dral choir.

He said af­ter the mass they ran away dur­ing a church pro­ces­sion and made their way to the cathe­dral’s sac­risty.

He said they drank al­tar wine but were caught by Pell, who in­de­cently as­saulted them.

Lit­tle is known about the ev­i­dence the vic­tim gave in closed court. Ap­pli­ca­tions for a tran­script have been re­fused by the court.

Pell was found guilty of one count of sex­ual pen­e­tra­tion of a child and four in­de­cent act charges. He has ve­he­mently de­nied any wrong­do­ing since he was charged last June.

In­ter­viewed by po­lice he force­fully de­nied al­le­ga­tions against him, and said he would be able to prove the of­fences al­leged were im­pos­si­ble.

An im­por­tant part of his de­fence was, as arch­bishop, he was never left alone in­side the Cathe­dral.

His mas­ter of cer­e­monies, Mon­signor Charles Portelli, gave ev­i­dence that he es­corted Pell from the mo­ment he ar­rived at the cathe­dral un­til the mo­ment he left.

Pell’s high-pow­ered le­gal team, spear­headed by lead­ing QC Robert Richter, ar­gued it would have been im­pos­si­ble for the choir­boys to es­cape the pro­ces­sion un­no­ticed.

Mr Richter ques­tioned their abil­ity to gain ac­cess to the sac­risty, and said had they done so church staff would have spot­ted them soon af­ter.

Of the then cathe­dral staff and choir­boys who gave ev­i­dence, none could cor­rob­o­rate the ev­i­dence of the vic­tim, who said he never spoke about the mat­ter with the other boy.

Sources close to the car­di­nal said his le­gal team re­main stunned by the ver­dicts.

“The ap­pel­late judges have a se­ri­ous task ahead of them,” a source close to Pell said.

Pell looked stunned as the first guilty ver­dict was de­liv­ered, but re­mained mo­tion­less af­ter that.

The ver­dicts, which were pub­lished widely out­side Aus­tralia in De­cem­ber, de­spite the gag or­der, sent shock­waves around the world.

Car­di­nal Pell is the most se­nior of­fi­cial to have been con­victed of a sex of­fence in the Catholic Church’s his­tory.

Sources said Pell, who stood down as Vat­i­can trea­surer so he could re­turn to Mel­bourne to fight the charges, hoped to re­turn to Rome af­ter the trial.

But now it ap­pears his ca­reer, al­ready marred by a hard-line con­ser­va­tive stance that made him a di­vi­sive fig­ure, has ended in dis­grace.

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