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High Court reserves decision on the fate of Cardinal George Pell after two-day hearing

Appealing conviction: Cardinal George Pell. Photo: CNS

THE High Court of Australia has reserved a decision on whether to overturn Cardinal George Pell’s convictions for child sexual abuse.

After two days of hearing from both Cardinal Pell’s lawyer and the prosecution, the court’s full bench of seven judges reserved a decision whether Cardinal Pell will be allowed to appeal his conviction.

Both legal teams have been given two days to provide further written submissions for the judges to consider, although a future court date is yet to be set.

If granted special leave for an appeal, Cardinal Pell’s legal team will argue that the 78-year-old should be acquitted of molesting two choirboys in 1996 and 1997.

One of the boys gave evidence against Cardinal Pell, while the second died in 2014, without disclosing any abuse.

Cardinal Pell is Australia’s most senior Catholic and the former financial controller of the Vatican.

 He has served one year of a six year jail term for child sex abuse. 

He was found guilty of sexually abusing two 13 year-old choirboys in the priest’s sacristy after Sunday Mass when he was the Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996. He then assaulted one of the boys again a few weeks later. 

Appearing before the High Court, Pell’s barrister Bret Walker SC submitted that the Cardinal should be acquitted.

He accused the prosecution of changing the parameters of the case and attempting to massage the facts to fit a legal narrative.

Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions Kerri Judd QC faced a series of questions from the full bench about the veracity of the facts that led to Cardinal Pell being sent to prison.

She shifted position on key evidence in the case – the timeframe that would have allowed Cardinal Pell to molest the boys after Mass in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Throughout the case, the prosecution has argued that the offending occurred during five or six minutes when Cardinal Pell and the choirboys were said to be alone in private prayer in the sacristy. 

In a crucial departure from that position, prosecutor Ms Judd told the High Court judges it could not be stated for certain how long the private prayer time lasted.

She said the five to six minutes of private prayer time may now have been longer, depending on what unfolded in the cathedral on the day.

Mr Walker had earlier argued the evidence pointed to “compounding improbabilities”, including that Cardinal Pell would not have had the time or opportunity to molest the boys in the sacristy after Mass.

He said it was Cardinal Pell’s custom to greet churchgoers on the cathedral steps after Mass and he would then be accompanied into the sacristy to revome vestments amid a “hive of activity”.

Part of the defence’s case hinges on the impossibility of Cardinal Pell being able to offend because he was never left alone – he was accompanied by a priest or a sacristan at all times after Mass. 

Mr Walker also argued that just because the complainant (the surviving choirboy – now a man in his thirties) was believable, there was other evidence that should not be discounted.

Mr Walker told the court that during Pell’s first appeal in 2019, judges may have been unduly influenced by the complainant’s testimony by watching a recorded video of it rather than just reading the transcript of his evidence.

Cardinal Pell remains in Barwon Prison near Geelong outside Melbourne while the High Court judges consider his fate.

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