Cardinal George Pell Loses Appeal on Child Sex Abuse Convictions

August 20, 2019 Updated: August 21, 2019

MELBOURNE, Australia—Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his child sex abuse convictions has been dismissed by a two to one majority in the Supreme Court of Victoria on Aug. 21.

The Court of Appeal upheld verdicts that found Pell guilty on five charges of child sex abuse last December.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria Anne Ferguson said she and President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Chris Maxwell, dismissed Pell’s appeal. A third Justice, Mark Weinberg, dissented.

The court’s majority decision (pdf) means that Pell’s jail term of six years stands, although his legal team have said they will now “thoroughly examine in order to determine a special leave application to the High Court.” The High Court of Australia would have to decide if there are sufficient grounds to allow the appeal.

If that fails, Pell will remain in prison until at least October 2022, after which he may be eligible for parole at the age of 81—a decision to be made by the adult parole board, not the courts, Chief Justice Ferguson said.

When sentencing the cardinal earlier this year, Justice Peter Kidd conceded that the cardinal may die in jail.

On Wednesday morning, the court’s decision was live-streamed across the world.

Pell’s legal team argued the appeal (pdf) on three grounds.

The three judges unanimously agreed to reject the second and third grounds for appeal—that Pell’s lawyers were not permitted to play an animation to the jury in their closing address, and that Pell was not given an opportunity to enter his plea of not guilty in the presence of the jury panel.

The court considered the whole of the evidence, with Chief Justice Anne Ferguson and President Maxwell agreeing that it was open for the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Pell was guilty.

Chief Justice Ferguson said Pell’s surviving victim, the man who gave evidence at trial, “was a compelling witness, clearly not a liar, not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.”

Pell’s other victim died in 2014 from a heroin overdose.

Justice Weinberg dissented, stating that “there was significant, and in some places impressive evidence suggesting that the complainant’s account was, in a realistic sense, impossible to accept.”

Nevertheless, the first ground argued by Pell’s lawyers—that the jury acted unreasonably in coming to a guilty verdict—was dismissed by two of the three judges. The jury was the second to hear the case after the first had to be discharged when they failed to reach a unanimous decision.

Chief Justice Ferguson and President Maxwell were unanimous in dismissing all 13 “obstacles” to Pell committing the crime as raised by Pell’s lawyers, including the argument that his robes were not capable of being maneuvered in the way the complainant alleged.

In reaching their decision, Chief Justice Ferguson said, “Those recordings [of the trial] went for more than 30 hours. We’ve watched those recordings more than once. The written transcript is approximately 2,000 pages in length. Like the jury, we were taken to St Patrick’s Cathedral to be shown what the jury had seen.”

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell arrives at the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, on Aug. 21, 2019. (AAP Images/Erik Anderson via REUTERS)

Chief Justice Ferguson also noted that Pell’s case has attracted widespread attention, including international scrutiny.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed the appeal dismissal at a press conference on Aug. 21, stating that George Pell will likely be stripped of his Companion of the Order of Australia honour, which was granted by former Prime Minister John Howard in 2005. Further, he urged “Australians who find themselves re-living these experiences to reach out to those around them, and to reach out to the services that are there for them.

“That’s where my sympathies are today. The courts have done their job, they’ve rendered their verdict. That’s the system of justice and it must be respected.”

The Vatican announced in February that it had also opened an internal investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith into Cardinal George Pell’s crimes. If found guilty, Pell would be dismissed as a Cardinal from the priesthood.

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