Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty of sexually assaulting two choirboys, becoming the most senior Catholic cleric ever convicted of child sex crimes.

An Australian court found Pell guilty by a trial jury on one count of sexual abuse and four counts of indecent assault of two boys at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in the 1990s.

Pell, now aged 77, who helped elect popes and ran the Vatican's finances, was accused of cornering the boys - then aged 12 and 13 - in the cathedral's sacristy and forcing them to perform a sex act on him.

The former Vatican Treasurer and adviser to Pope Francis denied all the charges and an initial trial ended with a hung jury in September, but he was convicted on retrial on 11 December.

A wide-ranging gag order from the presiding judge had prevented the media from reporting even the existence of court proceedings and the ensuing trials since May.

The suppression order was lifted today after prosecutors decided against proceeding with a planned second trial dealing with separate allegations against Pell.

The Australian cardinal has steadfastly denied all the allegations against him, and his defence lawyer told AFP he intends to appeal the conviction.

The Vatican said it has the "utmost respect" for the Australian justice system following the "painful news" of the Pell's conviction.

"We reiterate the utmost respect for Australian judicial authorities. In the name of this respect, we now await the outcome of the appeal process," Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.

Pope Francis confirmed restrictions on Pell, obliging him to refrain from public ministry and have no contact with children.

A pre-sentencing hearing is scheduled tomorrow, when Cardinal Pell is expected to be remanded in custody.

Read more:
Landmark summit must force church to confront 'enemy within'

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

Pell sat impassively during the court hearing, wearing a beige sport coat over a dark shirt and clerical collar.

His conviction is another blow to the Church, which has struggled to convince the world it is serious about tackling widespread child abuse and paedophilia.

News of his conviction came just two days after a historic Vatican summit on sexual abuse by priests, which Pope Francis likened to "human sacrifice".

"We are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth," Pope Francis said in closing remarks to the summit on Sunday, vowing to deal with every case of abuse "with the utmost seriousness".

But critics say the institution is still moving too slowly in dealing with a problem that is global in scale and, at minimum, spans decades.

Days after Pell was convicted in secret, the church announced he had been pulled off a panel of cardinals that make up the pope's cabinet and closest advisers.

But he has remained in his position as Vatican treasurer, effectively the church's third-ranking official, although he has been on extended leave since his indictment.

His case has caused consternation in Australia, where he had once been praised by luminaries from a prime minister down and was a leading conservative voice on issues ranging from gay marriage to climate change.

He was named in 2003 to the Vatican's powerful College of Cardinals, a position that allowed him to vote in the conclaves that elected popes Benedict and Francis.

In 2014, he was handpicked by Pope Francis to make the church's finances more transparent.

For decades, he denied being an abuser or covering up sex abuse, but he did admit he "mucked up" in dealing with paedophile priests in the state of Victoria.

Australia's media has strongly protested the gag order imposed on the case, which forbade them and international agencies from even mentioning the existence of the trial or the order itself.

Following his December conviction, some international media reported the verdict, while local newspapers published front-page stories informing readers that a prominent Australian had been found guilty of serious crimes, but they were not allowed to reveal what or who.

The judge responded with suggestions they could face criminal prosecution, jail time of up to five years, and in the case of overseas papers - possible extradition.

Around one in five Australians are Catholic, roughly five million people.

A five-year royal commission inquiry into child abuse said in a report issued last year that tens of thousands of children had been sexually abused in Australian churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools in a "national tragedy" over many generations.

Before Pell, the most high-profile case in Australia concerning sex abuse in the Church was the conviction earlier last year of the former archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, on charges of concealing crimes by a paedophile priest in the 1970s.

He successfully appealed that conviction in early December.