Lawyer for cardinal convicted of molesting choirboys apologizes for calling crime 'a plain vanilla sexual penetration'

A lawyer who downplayed a top cardinal’s sexual abuse of two children by saying it was merely a “plain vanilla sexual penetration” case says he misspoke and has apologized.

The lawyer, Robert Richter, made his controversial comments in court on Wednesday while seeking a lesser sentence for his client, former Vatican treasurer George Pell, who has been convicted of molesting two choirboys when he was Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia in the 1990’s.

Pell, who denies the charges and is appealing the conviction, faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for each of the two crimes. The sentencing is scheduled for March 13.

In seeking leniency, Richter said the assaults were “on the low end of offending,” and said they amounted to “no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case where a child is not volunteering or actively participating.”

Cardinal George Pell's lawyer Robert Richter leaves the County Court as protesters hold placards in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex abuse could face his first night in custody after a sentencing hearing Wednesday that will decide his punishment for molesting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral two decades ago. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Cardinal George Pell's lawyer Robert Richter leaves the County Court as protesters hold placards in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex abuse could face his first night in custody after a sentencing hearing Wednesday that will decide his punishment for molesting two choirboys in a Melbourne cathedral two decades ago. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

That elicited a swift response from Victorian County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd, who said: “I see this as a serious example of this kind of offending…There was an element of brutality to this assault.”

During the trial, one victim said that when he was 13 years old and a choirboy, Pell exposed himself to him and the other victim, also a choirboy of the same age, and then fondled them and masturbated. The victim said that Pell forced one of them to perform a sex act on him.

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The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ABC, reported that Prosecutor Mark Gibson said to the judge: "These acts … were, in our submission, humiliating and degrading towards each boy and gave rise to distress in each boy.”

As Richter walked out of the courtroom on Wednesday, people outside who were keeping track of the trial and had heard about his remarks yelled at him, ABC reported.

Chrissie Foster, the mother of two girls who were abused by a priest, heard Richter's comments in the courtroom and said they were "outrageous."

Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

Cardinal George Pell leaves the County Court in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The most senior Catholic cleric ever charged with child sex abuse has been convicted of molesting two choirboys moments after celebrating Mass, dealing a new blow to the Catholic hierarchy's credibility after a year of global revelations of abuse and cover-up. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

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"How can they say that? These are children, they were children, two of my children were treated to such rape," Foster said to ABC.

On Thursday, Richter released a statement, saying he had spent a sleepless night reflecting on his comments in court.

He said: “In seeking to mitigate sentence I used a wholly inappropriate phrase for which I apologize profusely to all who interpreted it in a way it was never intended: it was in no way meant to belittle or minimize the suffering and hurt of victims of sex abuse, and in retrospect I can see why it caused great offense to many."

“I hope my apology is accepted as sincerely as it is meant and I will never repeat such carelessness in my choice of words which might offend.”

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Meanwhile, the Vatican said on Wednesday that it is conducting an investigation into the accusations about Pell, and may defrock him if it finds the action is warranted.

"After the guilty verdict in the first instance concerning Cardinal Pell,” Gisotti said, “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will now handle the case following the procedure and within the time established by canonical norm.”