Melbourne: Angry protesters called Cardinal George Pell a "maggot" and a "monster" Wednesday as he arrived in court, possibly for the last time as a free man, in a last-ditch push for bail while he appeals his historic conviction for child sex crimes.
Once among Pope Francis' closest advisors and the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex crimes, Pell is facing up to 50 years in prison on five charges of sexual and indecent assault on two choirboys in 1996-97.
He is expected to be remanded in custody after the pre-sentencing submissions in court, but his lawyer plans to apply for bail later in the day before the Court of Appeal.
A large crowd confronted the Cardinal outside the County Court of Victoria in Melbourne, with supporters of other abuse survivors jostling the 77-year-old and yelling: "You're a maggot, Pell, you rot in hell." "You're the devil. You're evil... You're a paedophile. You're a criminal. You're a monster. May you rot in hell," one protester shouted.
Shortly before Wednesday's hearing, Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti announced on Twitter that Pell had been removed from his position as chief of Vatican finances, the third-most powerful position in the Church. The Vatican said earlier it had "utmost respect" for the Australian justice system following the "painful news" of Pell's conviction.
The Cardinal was found guilty in December of assaulting the two choirboys in the sacristy of Melbourne's Saint Patrick's Cathedral, but the verdict was only revealed Tuesday after a second trial against him was abandoned by prosecutors, allowing a gag order to be lifted. He was due to be remanded in custody in December but that was delayed until the pre-sentencing hearing as his lawyer said he required urgent double knee surgery.
Pell has already appealed the verdict and his lawyer told the court Tuesday it would be based on three grounds -- that the jury verdict was unreasonable, that an animation showing movements of people in the cathedral on the day of the alleged abuse was rejected, and that there were issues with how the jury was formed.
Pell is expected to be sentenced in the next two weeks. The Court of Appeal process, which could last up to a year, will see a bench usually made up of three judges review the same evidence that the jurors were presented with in the earlier trial.
Criminal law expert Jeremy Gans of the University of Melbourne told AFP the judges could question the jury's conclusions based on the fact that the case was based on only one person's -- the surviving victim's -- testimony. The other choirboy, who died of a drug overdose in 2014, had never told his parents he was abused.
During the trial, the court had heard that Pell abused the two boys after catching them swigging from a bottle of sacramental wine. He exposed himself and forced one of them to perform oral sex on him, and fondled the boy's genitals while masturbating.
His legal team argued the cathedral sacristy was a hive of activity following Sunday mass and "only a madman" would commit such acts after such a busy time. The Catholic Church meanwhile could face a civil suit from the father of the deceased victim, who said via his lawyer Tuesday that the cleric had "blood on his hands".
He said his son, who cannot be named for legal reasons, turned to drugs as a teenager to cope with the trauma and also suffered from PTSD. "We are looking at what knowledge the Church might have had in relation to what was happening," the lawyer, Leanne McDonald, told AFP.