Judge says disgraced cardinal Pell deserves may die in prison

The actions of Cardinal George Pell, pictured here at an earlier hearing, had a 'profound impact' on the life of the boy who survived his abuse, the judge said (AFP Photo/CON CHRONIS) (AFP/File)

Melbourne (AFP) - Disgraced Australian Cardinal George Pell "may not live to be released from prison", the judge warned a Melbourne court Wednesday as the sentencing of the 77-year-old for child sex crimes began.

Pell, the most senior Catholic clergyman ever found guilty of child sex abuse, faces a maximum 50 years in prison for assaulting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral in 1996-97.

The Australian cleric has been in custody since late February ahead of the sentencing hearing. Sitting at the back of the court as Justice Kidd read out his remarks, Pell was impassive and did not wear his white clerical collar with his black shirt and light olive-coloured jacket.

The cardinal is "entitled to the balanced and steady hand of justice", Chief Judge Peter Kidd told the County Court of Victoria as he opened his sentencing remarks.

He warned that the cleric was on trial and not the Catholic Church and lamented a "lynch mob mentality" among some of the public, adding: "You are not to be made a scapegoat."

"I am not sitting in judgment of the Catholic Church," Justice Kidd added, vowing to deal with only the facts of the case.

Going through the crimes in graphic detail, Justice Kidd said that Pell's actions had a "profound impact" on the life of the boy who survived his abuse and likely had a similar impact on a boy who later died of a heroin overdose.

Assaulting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral with both present likely caused additional "degradation and humiliation"," he said.

He accused Pell of "callous indifference" to the suffering of the boys, who have not been named.

The jury was told that Pell abused the two boys after catching them swigging from a bottle of sacramental wine in the sacristy after Sunday mass. He exposed himself and forced one of them to perform oral sex on him, and fondled the boy's genitals while masturbating.

Justice Kidd said the offences in the sacristy "involved a brazen and forceful sexual attack on the two victims".

"The acts were sexually graphic. Both victims were visibly and audibly distressed during this offending," he said.

Acknowledging Pell's age and his health issues including cardic problems and hypertension, Justice Kidd said that his sentence "carries with it a... possibility that you may not live to be released from prison".

"Of some real importance in my sentencing exercise is the fact that each year you spend in custody will represent a substantial portion of your remaining life expectancy," he added.

Pell was found guilty by a jury in December, but a suppression order Justice Kidd prevented media from reporting the case until late February, when prosecutors withdrew plans to hold a second trial.