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High Court weighs up Cardinal George Pell’s final bid at appeal, prosecution arguments heard today

Waiting: Cardinal George Pell awaits the decision of the High Court.

THE High Court of Australia has heard from Cardinal George Pell’s lawyer that evidence presented at trial must have given jurors reasonable doubt that Pell sexually abused two choirboys after Sunday Mass more than two decades ago.

Barrister Bret Walker SC was seeking to convince the Court’s full bench of seven judges that Pell’s case warrants and appeal – a last legal avenue to clear the Cardinal’s name after he was convicted by a unanimous jury verdict in 2018. 

Pope Francis’s 78-year-old former finance minister was sentenced to six years in gaol for molesting two 13-year-old choirboys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996 and 1997, soon after he became Archbishop of Melbourne.

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

Cardinal Pell has always maintains his innocence.

Cardinal Pell took no part in court proceedings yesterday. 

He remained inside the maximum-security Barwon Prison near Geelong, southwest of Melbourne, while his lawyer addressed the High Court in Canberra. 

Mr Walker told judges that key parts of the evidence presented at the 2018 trial must have given the jurors reasonable doubt.

Evidence was given by more than 20 prosecution witnesses including priests, altar servers and former choirboys. 

Their testimony supported Cardinal Pell’s practice, when Archbishop of Melbourne in December 1996, of standing on the cathedral steps after Sunday Mass to greet parishioners and the “hive of activity” that surrounded the priests’ sacristy at the time the abuse is said to have occurred.

Reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell could have carried out the abuse after a busy Mass was later supported by one of three judges when the Pell case was heard by the Victorian Court of Appeal last year.

The Court of Appeal was split over whether the key evidence stood up against the credible testimony given by the complainant – the surviving choirboy, who is now a middle-aged man and the only witness who supported the allegations against Cardinal Pell.

Prosecutors have told the judges in written submissions that it is not their role to determine whether it was open to the jury to find the offence proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Another key argument raised by Pell’s lawyer was whether the Court of Appeal was unduly convinced by video testimony given by the complainant.

Mr Walker argued the viewing of this footage may have unduly convinced two of the three judges at the appeal court, who may have given the compelling video testimony greater weight than the entirety of evidence available.

He also argued that being impressed by a complainant does not eliminate the possibility of reasonable doubt.

Even though Mr Walker presented his case, it is still not certain whether the High Court will allow the appeal to go ahead. 

Judges could decide he does not have permission to appeal, he has permission to appeal but the appeal is denied, or he has permission to appeal and the appeal is upheld.

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