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Cardinal George Pell’s sexual abuse conviction appeal dismissed by Victorian Court

Appeal dismissed: Cardinal George Pell.  Photo: CNS

CARDINAL George Pell has lost his appeal and will remain behind bars as a convicted child sex offender.

The Cardinal’s appeal was dismissed by the Victorian Court of Appeal – a 2-1 split decision by the judges that opens the way for a possible High Court appeal.

However, he faces a potential Vatican trial and laicisation, after rising to become one of the Church’s most senior global figures.

Outside the court, protesters including advocates for victims of child sexual abuse celebrated the decision. 

Victoria’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Ferguson made it clear Cardinal Pell “should not be made a scapegoat for any perceived failings of the Catholic Church nor for any failure in relation to sexual abuse by other clergy”.

Cardinal Pell, 78, will continue to serve his sentence of six years’ imprisonment.

He will remain eligible to apply for parole after he has served three years and eight months of the sentence.

Judges split on decision

It was the Chief Justice Ferguson and the president of the Court of Appeal Justice Chris Maxwell who dismissed the appeal, finding that that there was enough evidence at trial for the jury to convict Cardinal Pell beyond reasonable doubt.

Justice Mark Weinberg was in the minority, ruling that Cardinal Pell’s conviction should have been overturned.

Cardinal Pell was convicted of one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four of committing an indecent act with or in the presence of a child.

Last December, a jury upheld the prosecution case that Cardinal Pell abused two choirboys, both aged 13, in the sacristy of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral on a Sunday in December 1996, and then separately attacked one of the boys in the cathedral corridor early in 1997.

Cardinal Pell was convicted on the strength of the evidence given by one of the victims, now a man in his 30s. 

The other victim died in 2014 and never reported any abuse.

Chief Justice Ferguson said the complainant (the surviving victim) was “a very compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of the truth”.

Cardinal Pell’s main ground of appeal was that his guilty verdicts were unreasonable and evidence presented to the jury could not support a guilty verdict.

His lawyers argued he was never left unattended by church officials while he was vested, that the choirboys couldn’t have re-entered the building from outside without being seen, that Cardinal Pell’s practice of meeting parishioners after Mass gave him an alibi and that his cumbersome vestments made the sexual assault allegations physically impossible.

Two of the judges dismissed these and other “obstacles” to Cardinal Pell committing the crime that his lawyer’s had argued. 

They found there was nothing about the complainant’s evidence that meant the jury must have had a doubt about the account.

Rejected: Justice Chris Maxwell, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Justice Mark Weinberg in the Victorian Court of Appeal.

In his dissenting judgement, Justice Weinberg, found that at times the complainant was inclined to embellish aspects of his account. 

He concluded that his evidence contained discrepancies, displayed inadequacies and otherwise lacked probative value so as to cause him to have a doubt as to the applicant’s guilt. 

Justice Weinberg could not exclude as a reasonable possibility that some of what the complainant  said was “concocted, particularly in relation to the second incident”. 

Justice Weinberg found the complainant’s account of the second incident was “entirely implausible and quite unconvincing”. 

‘Impossible to accept’

Justice Weinberg said in relation to the first incident, if the complainant’s evidence was the only evidence, he might as well found it difficult to say that the jury acting reasonably were found to have a reasonable doubt about the Cardinal’s guilt. 

“He went on to note however that there was more than just the complainant’s evidence. In Justice Weinberg’s view, there was a significant body of cogent and in some cases impressive evidence suggesting that the complainant’s account was in a realistic sense impossible to accept,” Chief Justice Ferguson said.

“To his mind, there is a significant possibility that the cardinal may not have committed the offences. In those circumstances, Justice Weinberg stated that in his view, the convictions could not stand. 

“Nevertheless, the appeal on the unreasonableness ground has been dismissed because two of us took a different view of the facts.”

Chief Justice Ferguson said “it is not enough that the jury might have had a doubt, but they must have had a doubt”. 

She said the court unanimously refused leave to appeal on the other two grounds. 

She said a video animation that the Cardinal’s legal team said showed the location of witnesses in the cathedral when the offences were said to have taken place, bore little resemblance to the actual state of the evidence.

The video was never presented to the jury, and Justice Ferguson said it had the potential of “misleading or at least confusing the jury.”

Survivor hopes ‘all over now’

Outside the Melbourne court Vivian Waller, lawyer for the complainant, read out a statement on behalf of her client,

“I am relieved by the decision of the court of appeal. It is four years since I reported to the police. 

The criminal process has been stressful. The journey has taken me to places that in my darkest moments I feared I would not return from.

“Some commentators have suggested that I reported to the police somehow for my own personal gain. 

“Nothing could be further from the truth. This is not about money and never had been.

“Some commentators have suggested that I am somehow out to cause damage to the Catholic Church. 

“I’m not on a mission to do anybody any harm. Although my faith has taken a battering it is still a part of my life, and part of the lives of my loved ones.

“Despite this, I appreciate that the criminal process afforded Pell every opportunity to challenge the charges and to be heard. 

“I am glad he had the best legal representation money can buy. There are a lot of checks and balances in the criminal justice system and the appeal process is one of them.

“I just hope that it is all over now.”

A spokesperson for Cardinal Pell said he was disappointed with the decision.

“However his legal team will thoroughly examine the judgement in order to determine a special leave application to the High Court,” the spokesperson said.

“While noting the 2-1 split decision, Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence.”

Australian bishops respond

Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who is the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, said the Australian bishops believed all Australians must be equal under the law and “accept today’s judgment accordingly”.

Archbishop Coleridge said the bishops understood this was and remained a most difficult time for survivors.

“We acknowledge the pain that those abused by clergy have experienced through the long process of the trials and appeal of Cardinal Pell,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“We also acknowledge that this judgement will be distressing to many people.

“We remain committed to doing everything we can to bring healing to those who have suffered greatly and to ensuring that Catholic settings are the safest possible places for all people, but especially for children and vulnerable adults.”

Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said his prayers were with the man who brought the matter before the courts and offered pastoral and spiritual help should he seek it.

“In Christian charity, I will ensure that Cardinal Pell is provided pastoral and spiritual support while he serves the remainder of his sentence, according to the teaching and example of Jesus to visit those in prison,” Archbishop Comensoli said.

Both the Summary of Judgment and Reasons of the Court of Appeal documents can be found at:
 https://www.supremecourt.vic.gov.au/case-summaries/court-of-appeal-proceedings/george-pell-v-the-queen

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