Cardinal George Pell's conviction for sexually assaulting two choirboys was upheld by an Australian court on Wednesday.
The 78-year-old former Vatican treasurer — the most senior Catholic official to be convicted of sexually abusing children — will continue to serve his 6-year prison sentence. He is not eligible for parole until he is 81.
A statement from Pell's spokesperson said the cardinal maintains his innocence and "is obviously disappointed with the decision today."
A jury in December found Pell guilty of all five charges related to sexually assaulting the two 13-year-old boys at a Melbourne church in 1996.
One of the victims came forward to authorities about the assault in 2015, about a year after the second boy — who began using heroin at 14 — died from a drug overdose at the age of 31.
Following the court's decision, the surviving victim issued a statement through his lawyer, saying, "I am grateful for a legal system that everyone can believe in, where everybody is equal before the law and no one is above the law."
"The criminal process has been stressful. The journey has taken me to places that, in my darkest moments, I feared I could not return from."
Vatican: Pell has 'right' to appeal
The Vatican released a statement on Wednesday, saying that it "acknowledges" the Australian court's decision, adding that Pell "has always maintained his innocence" and "it is his right to appeal to the High Court."
The Vatican also said that it stands alongside victims and that it is committed to using church authorities to pursue "those members of the clergy who commit such abuse."
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, also released a statement saying the conference believes "all Australians must be equal under the law and accept today’s judgment accordingly."
"The bishops realize that this has been and remains a most difficult time for survivors of child sexual abuse and those who support them," he said in the statement.
"We remain committed to doing everything we can to bring healing to those who have suffered greatly and to ensuring that Catholic settings are the safest possible places for all people, but especially for children and vulnerable adults."
Following the ruling, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Pell will be stripped of his Order of Australia honor.
'He should not be made a scapegoat'
Pell's lawyers had argued at an appeal hearing that the unanimous verdicts in December were "unsatisfactory" and unreasonable because the jury did not have sufficient evidence to find the cardinal guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But in the end, they failed to convince the majority of the appeals court.
The court rejected the appeal with a two-to-one ruling, with the majority writing they agreed it "was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt Cardinal Pell was guilty as charged."
The legal team had also included two other grounds in their appeal but both were rejected by all three judges. Pell's lawyers, however, may still challenge the Victoria state Court of Appeal's decision in Australia's highest court.
Supreme Court of Victoria Chief Justice Anne Ferguson read out the summary, saying, "Having reviewed the whole of the evidence, two of the judges of the court of appeal ... have decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty of the offenses charged."
"Again, as the trial judge observed, he is not to be made a scapegoat for any perceived failings of the Catholic Church, nor for any failure in relation to child sexual abuse by other clergy," she said.
stb/kl (AP, Reuters)