MELBOURNE, Australia — The sexual-abuse conviction of Cardinal George Pell was upheld by the Court of Appeal in the Australian state of Victoria, with an appellate panel announcing its 2-1 decision at an Aug. 21 court proceeding.
Following the hearing, the cardinal was returned to prison to continue serving the six-year sentence he received in March, after being convicted of sexually abusing two choirboys in the sacristy of Melbourne’s St. Paul Cathedral in the 1990s, when he was the archbishop.
Cardinal Pell is expected to appeal to Australia’s High Court following the appeal-court decision, which was a judgment that pleased his opponents but shocked many of his supporters, who remain convinced of his innocence.
The cardinal’s legal team believes the former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy has a solid chance of the decision being overturned, on the same grounds that one of the three appeal-court judges dissented from the majority judgment.
In her opening remarks to Victoria’s Supreme Court, Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said that, by a “majority (2-1), the Court of Appeal has dismissed Cardinal George Pell’s appeal against his conviction for the commission of sexual offenses.”
Ferguson recalled that a jury found the cardinal guilty last December of “one charge of sexual penetration of a child under 16 and four charges of indecent act with a child under 16.” The trial lasted for “five weeks, and the jury deliberated for several days,” she added. “The jury’s verdict was unanimous.”
Ferguson told the court that Cardinal Pell will “continue to serve his sentence of six years’ imprisonment” and be eligible for parole “after he has served three years, eight months of his sentence.” That would make him eligible in November 2022.
Ferguson, who, along with Justices Chris Maxwell and Mark Weinberg, presided over the appeal hearing, noted both the “vilification” but also the “strong public support” the cardinal has received.
The judges reached their decision after watching video of the evidence given by 12 of the 24 witnesses who appeared in the trial.
“Each of the judges has read [the trial] transcript, some parts of it multiple times,” Ferguson said, referring to the more than 2,000 pages of documents related to the trial.
Was the Verdict Unreasonable?
All three justices rejected two grounds for appeal regarding procedural matters (that Cardinal Pell’s arraignment did not follow protocol and that a video helpful to the defense was not allowed to be shown during closing arguments).
But Weinberg dissented from the other two justices by supporting the third and most significant ground upon which Cardinal Pell’s legal team had appealed: that the verdict was unreasonable because of extensive uncontroverted evidence and testimonies showing the cardinal could not have committed the crimes in the manner the complainant had outlined.
Weinberg found the accuser’s testimony “contained discrepancies, displayed inadequacies, and otherwise lacked probative value,” Ferguson told the court. He also called the accuser’s account of the second incident of abuse “entirely implausible and quite unconvincing” and found the complainant’s account, “in a realistic sense, ‘impossible’ to accept.”
In his dissenting judgment, Weinberg writes of a “significant possibility” that the cardinal “may not have committed these offenses,” leading him to believe that “these convictions cannot be permitted to stand.”
“I am troubled by the fact that I find myself constrained to differ from two of my colleagues whose opinions I always respect greatly,” Weinberg stated. “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.”
But Ferguson said in her opening remarks that this unreasonableness ground “was dismissed because the other two judges [Ferguson and Maxwell] took a different view of the facts.” She added that both “Justice Maxwell and I accepted the prosecution’s submission that the complainant was a compelling witness, was clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.”
“Where the unreasonableness ground is relied upon, the task for the appeal court is to decide whether, on the whole of the evidence, it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty,” Ferguson explained.
“Having reviewed the whole of the evidence, two of the judges … decided that it was open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt,” Ferguson said.
“In other words, those judges decided that there was nothing about the complainant’s evidence, or about the opportunity evidence, which meant that the jury ‘must have had a doubt.’”
Cardinal Pell has always vigorously denied the charges, calling them in a 2015 video testimony “absolute and disgraceful rubbish” and the “product of fantasy.”
In a short Aug. 21 statement provided to the Register, Cardinal Pell’s spokeswoman, Katrina Lee, said the cardinal “is obviously disappointed with the decision,” but added that his legal team “will thoroughly examine the judgment in order to determine a special-leave application to the High Court.”
“While noting the 2-1 split decision, Cardinal Pell maintains his innocence,” Lee added. “We thank his many supporters.”
The Victoria court’s decision comes after two days of hearings in June, during which the cardinal’s lawyer was widely viewed to have presented a stronger case than the prosecution.
As a Vatican official, the 78-year-old prelate, who had been warned not to travel due to a heart condition, could have invoked diplomatic immunity, but he decided in 2017 to return to Australia and face trial in a bid to clear his name.
In a pair of statements, the Vatican reiterated its respect for the Australian justice system and confirmed its closeness to victims of sexual abuse, but recalled that Cardinal Pell has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and retains the right to appeal to Australia’s High Court.
The Vatican also communicated that it will await conclusion of the Australian appeals process before taking up the case in its own courts.
The complainant, who cannot be named, said in a statement read by his lawyer that he was “grateful for a legal system that everyone can believe in,” adding that his “journey has not been an easy one” and “all the more stressful because it involved a high-profile figure.”
Leonie Sheedy, a campaigner against clerical sex abuse, told the BBC that “justice has prevailed,” that “the little people have had a victory,” and that instead of spending money on appeals, the Church should give it to victims of abuse.
In their respective statements, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, and Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne both expressed their respect for the appeal court’s decision and conveyed their greatest sympathy for the victim.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney focused on Cardinal Pell’s strenuous and continued pleas of innocence and noted that the court’s split decision was consistent with “differing views” of the juries and “divided opinion” among the public.
“Reasonable people have taken different views when presented with the same evidence,” he said, “and I urge everyone to maintain calm and civility.”
Many of the cardinal’s supporters expressed shock over the judgment. “I am utterly dismayed by the court of appeal’s decision,” Peter Westmore told the Register Aug. 21.
A former president of the National Civic Council, an Australian Christian lobby group, Westmore attended both jury trials (a mistrial was recorded last September, leading to a second trial, which found the cardinal guilty). He said a major factor acting against the cardinal was that the credibility of the complainant was not allowed to be questioned in court.
In addition, he agreed with Weinberg that the evidence “was contradicted” not only by the complainant “changing his story multiple times” but also that each of the other two dozen witnesses “contradicted his version of events.”
Westmore and others believe the cardinal is a victim of the public hostility not just against him personally but also against the Catholic Church in Australia, and he said he has never seen such a “degree of venom.”
“It is comparable to a black man on trial in Alabama in the 1930s, or a Jew on trial in Germany in the 1930s, or anyone on trial today in China,” he said.
Alastair Logan, a lawyer who acted for the “Guildford Four” — a case involving one of Britain’s most famous miscarriages of justice, when three men and one women were accused and wrongly convicted in 1974 of IRA terrorist attacks after police brutally obtained their confessions — told the Register the Cardinal Pell case is “clearly different,” as there were no coerced confessions, but added that it is “no less troubling.”
Logan said before the Aug. 21 decision that he was pessimistic the decision would be overturned, as appeal courts, in Britain at least, “are notorious for refusing appeals.” Now he believes that “unless there is new, robust evidence that points to innocence, there is little hope of overturning the conviction, and I would doubt that a further appeal would be successful.”
Nevertheless, members of Cardinal Pell’s defense team are buoyed by the force of Weinberg’s dissenting opinion, which they see as very lengthy and very strong, compared to those of the other two justices, which are half as long and largely reiterate the prosecution’s case.
A source close to the cardinal also told the Register that lawyers in other offices were incredulous at the Aug. 21 decision. “They cannot understand the decision at all,” the source said.
The source also said the cardinal was “obviously disappointed but he was calm” following the decision, telling his legal team that “we now have to discuss where we go from here.”
Quoting other remarks of the cardinal, the source added that he had recently told friends there was “no point getting upset and frustrated, as it’s not going to make anything better.”
Westmore said the cardinal, who has been held in solitary confinement since March 13, has endured imprisonment with “great fortitude.” He expects Cardinal Pell to be moved to a different prison for sex offenders, but said it is a “quite civilized” and “comfortable” facility, where he predicts the cardinal will “set about ministering to fellow prisoners.”
The appeal to the High Court is likely to be a protracted process, but the cardinal’s legal team hopes it could take place in a few months.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.