Cardinal Pell Appeals to the High Court: What Happens Next?

Cardinal Pell filed an “application for special leave” to the High Court on Tuesday, following the Victoria Court of Appeal’s Aug. 21 decision to uphold his conviction for child sexual abuse.

The High Court building in Canberra, Australia
The High Court building in Canberra, Australia (photo: Alex Proimos/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons)

Now that Cardinal George Pell filed an appeal against his conviction to Australia’s High Court on Tuesday, the next step in the process will be for the prosecution to issue a response, according to a source close to the cardinal’s legal team.

The prosecution has three weeks to file a reply, the source told the Register, after which the cardinal’s lawyers have seven days to respond to that reply.

It is then up to the High Court to make a decision to either reject the application, or give consent to hear the appeal.

But the source said that decision could take a few months, and then the date of a hearing might not be until early next year, unless they believe it should be expedited on the strength of the appeal and the high-profile case.

The Australian prefect emeritus of the Secretariat for the Economy filed an “application for special leave” to the High Court on Tuesday, following the Victoria Court of Appeal’s 2-1 decision on Aug. 21 to uphold his conviction for child sexual abuse.

The cardinal, who has always strenuously denied the allegations and pleaded his innocence, was found guilty in December of sexually abusing two former choirboys at St. Patrick's Cathedral, while he was the Archbishop of Melbourne.

Usually, the High Court does not grant special leave applications but it is thought Cardinal Pell’s case would be accepted due to the fact that one of the three appellate judges in Victoria, Justice Mark Weinberg, dissented from the other two in their decision to uphold the cardinal’s conviction.

The application is the cardinal’s last avenue of appeal against a 6-year jail term. He is currently not eligible for parole until November 2022.

His appeal to the High Court submitted just a day before a 28-day deadline. Asked why it took until the last day to lodge the application, the source close to the cardinal said it was “simply because there was a lot of work to do.”

“The document must not be any longer than 12 pages,” the source said. “Every argument and every word must be precise and carry weight. It is not a matter of repeating the trial or appeal case. The High Court has a narrow focus and looks specifically at matters of law.

“Anyone who suggests it could be done quickly is way off the mark.”

According to Chris Merritt of The Australian newspaper, Cardinal Pell’s lawyer, Bret Walker, and barrister Ruth Shann, say in the special leave application that Victoria’s two appellate judges who upheld the cardinal’s conviction “utterly botched the cardinal’s case, not just on the facts but on the law.”

According to Merritt, the application will make “extremely difficult reading” for the two judges, chief justice Anne Ferguson, and court of appeal president, Chris Maxwell.

He reports that Walker, reputed to be a highly regarded Australian barrister, accuses the two judges in the application of “unorthodox reasoning,” “circular reasoning,” and “erroneous judicial method.”

“If the High Court agrees to hear this appeal,” Merritt believes, “it will need to grapple with those arguments and determine whether the judicial method demonstrated by Ferguson and Maxwell is actually as flawed as Walker and Shann believe.”

“The stakes are staggeringly high,” Merritt continues. “The affair now concerns not just the freedom of the cardinal, but the continued public standing of Victoria’s top judges, and the man who might well be the nation’s greatest lawyer.”