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Convicted cardinal has another chance to clear his name, judge compares case to Lindy Chamberlain

Back to prison: Australian Cardinal George Pell departs in a van from the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne on August 21. An Australian appeals court upheld the conviction of Cardinal Pell on five counts of sexually assaulting two choirboys more than two decades ago. Photo: CNS/Stefan Postles, AAP Images

ONE of the three judges in Cardinal George Pell’s appeal has compared the cardinal’s conviction “beyond reasonable doubt” to that of Lindy Chamberlain.

Lindy Chamberlain was accused, convicted by a jury and jailed for the murder of her baby, Azaria, who had been taken by a dingo at Uluru in central Australia in 1980.

Mrs Chamberlain was eventually exonerated, her story immortalised in the movie Evil Angels, starring Meryl Streep. 

“… The evidence did not establish, beyond reasonable doubt, Mrs Chamberlain’s guilt,” Justice Mark Weinberg wrote in his assessment of the evidence in Cardinal Pell’s Court of Appeal judgement.

“I find myself in a position quite similar to that which confronted Deane J. (William Deane, a dissenting judge in the Chamberlain High Court appeal case, and later Governor General of Australia).

“To borrow his Honour’s language, there is, to my mind, a ‘significant possibility’ that the applicant in this case may not have committed these offences.  

“That means that, in my respectful opinion, these convictions cannot be permitted to stand.  

“The only order that can properly be made is that the applicant be acquitted on each charge.”

Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and Court President Chris Maxwell were satisfied that justice had been served, and that Cardinal Pell’s conviction should stand for five offences, including sexual penetration of a child, committed against two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996.

In March, he was sentenced to six years in jail and is not eligible for parole until October 2022, when he will be 81.

However, Justice Weinberg’s assessment offered a solid foundation if Cardinal Pell’s legal team chooses to pursue a High Court appeal.

An application has to be lodged within 28 days, but any case could take a year before it is heard. 

Justice Weinberg noted that in the Chamberlain case, High Court judges had to decide if the evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt that the mother had murdered her baby.

“He (Justice Deane) acknowledged that the circumstantial evidence against her appeared strong. He said that there was much about the defence story about the dingo that struck him as being ‘far-fetched’,” Justice Weinberg said.

“At the same time, his honour said that the prosecution case against Mrs Chamberlain was neither comprehensive, nor, in itself, impregnable.”

Referring to the accusations against Cardinal Pell, Justice Weinberg said there was “ample material” offered by the complainant – a sole witness’ testimony against Pell – that “could be legitimately subject to criticism”.

“There were inconsistencies, and discrepancies, and a number of his answers simply made no sense,” he said.

While not concluding that the complainant made up his story, Justice Weinburg said: “I would not myself be prepared to say, beyond reasonable doubt, that the complainant was such a compelling, credible and reliable witness that I would necessarily accept his account beyond reasonable doubt”.

While his fellow judges found the testimonies of other witnesses to be inconsistent, Justice Weinberg found their evidence critical and “if accepted, would lead inevitably to acquittal”.

Importantly, Cardinal Pell’s master of ceremonies Charles Portelli gave evidence that he remembered accompanying the former archbishop on particular dates in December 1996, and said Pell greeted parishioners after Mass. 

This would make it unlikely for him to have been alone with the choirboys in the sacristy where the complainant said the offences occurred. 

Monsignor Portelli had told the court there may have been times when Cardinal Pell would have been left unaccompanied, but these would only have been for “two minutes”.

The other appeal judges found Msgr Portelli’s evidence inconsistent and did not think it proved Pell had definitely greeted parishioners, or that he never had a chance to be alone.

Justice Weinberg clearly wrestled with his dissenting assessment.

“I am troubled by the fact that I find myself constrained to differ from two of my colleagues whose opinions I always respect greatly,” he wrote.

“That has caused me to reflect even more carefully upon the proper outcome of this application. Having done so, however, I cannot, in good conscience, do other than to maintain my dissent.

“The only order that can properly be made is that the applicant be acquitted on each charge.”

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