efe-epaBangkok

Australian Cardinal George Pell, who was the brain behind a church scheme to offer support and counseling to victims of sexual abuse, has now become the highest-ranking Catholic official to be convicted of pedophilia.

Pell, who was once the third-most powerful figure at the Vatican, was found guilty by court in Australia of five charges of sexual abuse of minors including penetration.

The offenses were committed soon after he was installed as the archbishop of Melbourne and around the same time he established the Melbourne Response in 1996 which offered counseling and economic support service to victims of abuse although the scheme was criticized for being inadequate.

The jury delivered a unanimous verdict on Dec.11 but it could not be reported until Tuesday due to legal reasons.

Pell, who is out on bail until his sentencing, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison for each charge although his attorneys have already appealed the conviction.

Until last year, the 77-year-old cardinal was one of closest advisers of Pope Francis, who has promised a "zero tolerance" approach to pedophilia.

Pell was born in Ballarat in Victoria state on Jun. 8, 1941 to George Arthur, a heavyweight boxing champion of Anglican faith, and Margaret Lillian, a devout Catholic. He has two siblings, Margaret and David.

The cardinal received his education at Loreto Convent and St Patrick's College in Ballarat, where he excelled in athletics and even signed to play with the Richmond Football Club of the Australian Football League.

However, in 1960, Pell decided to enter the Corpus Christi Seminary in Victoria, and was ordained a catholic priest at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City in 1966 before earning a PhD in church history from Oxford University in 1971.

In the decade between 1970 and 1980, he served as a priest and educator in several parishes and Catholic centers in Australia including Ballarat.

The Australian was then appointed an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in 1987, archbishop of the same city in 1996 and archbishop of Sydney in 2001.

Two years later, he was appointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II that allowed him to vote in the conclaves that elected popes Benedict and Francis.

In 2014, he was appointed prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, a new post created by Pope Francis to tackle scandals involving the Vatican's finances.

However, the Vatican's third most powerful official after the pope and the Vatican secretary of state, has long been haunted by allegations of pedophilia in the heart of the Catholic Church in Australia, several of them in Ballarat.

In 2002, when he was archbishop of Sydney, a man claimed he was sexually abused by Pell in 1961, when he was 12 years old and Pell was training for the priesthood.

In March 2016, in his testimony to a special commission investigating child sexual abuse in Australian institutions, Pell acknowledged that in the 1980s there existed an "extraordinary world" of "crimes and cover ups" in the Catholic Church to protect the institution but vehemently denied having sexually abused any minor.

The commission concluded in a report that seven percent of all priests in Australia sexually abused minors in their charge between 1960 and 2015.

The commission also revealed that there was a ring of pedophile priests in Ballarat in the 1970s.

The Australian police filed charges of pedophilia against the cardinal on Jun. 29, 2017 and the same day he asked for leave from the Vatican to prove his "innocence".

Pell has been declared guilty in the first trial, while a second trial, for alleged abuse committed in the 1970s in Ballarat, was dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Pell, a conservative, who in the past has opposed the ordination of women, divorce and abortion and, at least on one occasion, also refused to give communion to homosexual persons during mass.

By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela