Cardinal Pell's lawyer apologises for 'terrible choice of phrase'

MELBOURNE, Feb 28 (Reuters) - The defence lawyer for Australian Cardinal George Pell, a former top Vatican official now in custody pending sentencing for sexually abusing 13-year-old boys, apologised on Thursday for controversial comments he made about the assault.

The former Vatican treasurer is the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted for child sex offences. He was found guilty in December of five offences committed in the 1990s, but the verdict was only made public this week when the court lifted a suppression order on the case.

Robert Richter, who presented Pell's defence in court, had tried to argue that his client's offences were at the low-end of the scale, at one point saying it was "no more than a plain vanilla sexual penetration case" where the child did not willingly take part, an argument quickly dismissed by the judge.

Australian Cardinal George Pell
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Australian Cardinal George Pell
FILE - In this March 5, 2018, file photo, Cardinal George Pell arrives for a hearing at an Australian court in Melbourne, Australia. A lawyer for the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis told the Australian court on Tuesday, April 17, 2018 that Pell could have been targeted with false accusations to punish him for the crimes of other clerics. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake, File)
Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrate Court in Melbourne Monday, March 5, 2018. The alleged victims of the most senior Vatican official ever charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis began giving testimony to the Australian court on Monday. (AP Photo/Asanka Brendon Ratnayake)
Australian Cardinal George Pell leaves the Melbourne Magistrate Court in Melbourne Tuesday, May 1, 2018. Australian Cardinal Pell, the most senior Vatican official to be charged in the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, must stand trial on charges that he sexually abused multiple victims decades ago, a magistrate ruled Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
Cardinal George Pell departs a court house in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, May 16, 2018. An Australian state court employee has been fired for looking up in a restricted computer system details of charges facing the senior Vatican cleric, court officials say. (Joe Castro/AAP Image via AP)
Cardinal George Pell arrives at 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 emerges from a building in Melbourne on February 14, 2019. - Pell is facing prosecution for historical child sexual offences. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
Cardinal George Pell gestures as he talks during a news conference for the presentation of new president of Vatican Bank IOR, at the Vatican July 9, 2014. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File photo
Pope Benedict XVI (C), Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (R) and Australia's senior Catholic cleric Cardinal George Pell smile during an event to thank World Youth Day volunteers at the Domain in Sydney July 21, 2008. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz (AUSTRALIA)
Head of the Catholic Church in Australia Cardinal George Pell (C) pats a wallaby as Pope Benedict XVI (L) looks on at Kenthurst Study Centre ahead of World Youth Day in Sydney July 16, 2008. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Pool (AUSTRALIA)
Catholic cardinal George Pell of Australia enters a news conference about church sexual abuse, in Sydney July 8, 2008. Pell was embroiled in a sexual abuse controversy on Tuesday, only days before Pope Benedict arrives in Sydney for a visit that could see abuse victims staging protests. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne (AUSTRALIA)

In a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he said he had made a "terrible choice of a phrase."

"In seeking to mitigate sentence, I used a wholly inappropriate phrase for which I apologise profusely to all who interpreted it in a way it was never intended," Richter said.

"It was in no way meant to belittle or minimise the suffering and hurt of victims of sex abuse, and in retrospect I can see why it caused great offence 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."

The 77-year-old Pell had been on bail throughout the court proceedings. Bail was revoked on Wednesday and he was taken into custody.

He is due to be sentenced on March 13. (Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Neil Fullick)

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