Cardinal Pell Supporters Optimistic About Appeal Hearing

They tell the Register that the two-day process unfolded very favorably for the imprisoned Australian cardinal, who is appealing his conviction of sexual abuse.

Cardinal George Pell is escorted into the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne for his appeal hearing on Thursday
Cardinal George Pell is escorted into the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne for his appeal hearing on Thursday (photo: ASANKA BRENDON RATNAYAKE/AFP/Getty Images)

Cardinal George Pell’s two-day appeal hearing ended yesterday after the court heard from the cardinal’s defense counsel on the first day, and the prosecution on the second.

On the first of the two days, Cardinal Pell’s lawyer, Bret Walker, defended the cardinal principally on the grounds that Cardinal Pell’s conviction last year on charges of sexual abuse was unreasonably based on the testimony of one surviving victim and that the trial judge unfairly disallowed defense evidence.

Walker argued that the guilty verdict was returned despite the lack of proof beyond reasonable doubt.

The following day, June 6, prosecutor Christopher Boyce reportedly struggled to answer questions from the three appeals court judges, and accidentally named the alleged victim, which is suppressed in these cases.

Boyce appeared to have difficulty articulating his own arguments, or was lost for words under judicial questioning. One of his arguments was that the alleged victim’s story was too outlandish to be invented.

Prior to the appeal hearing, the three judges visited Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s cathedral, the place where the abuse is alleged to have taken place. The visit, which was apparently unprecedented for the Australian legal system, was to help them understand the evidence that was considered by the jury.

John Macaulay, a former altar server for Cardinal Pell who has followed the trials closely, told the Register Friday he was optimistic of an acquittal due to the “strength of Pell’s team” and the poor way the Director of Public Prosecutions tried put forward the alleged victim’s case.

He said Boyce “just floundered” and “literally didn’t want to answer the questions of the three justices precisely because, if he did answer them, he’d be conceding a hell of a lot more ground rather than just looking and sounding bumbling and fumbling as he did.”

Another factor that gave him grounds for optimism was that because Cardinal Pell never took the witness stand, both the jury and the appeal judges have to rely only on the same video testimony of the cardinal being questioned by police in Rome. In the video, the cardinal was widely considered to have denied the allegations convincingly, calling the charges “absolute and disgraceful rubbish” and the “product of fantasy.”

This means the judges are at “no disadvantage” to the jury, Macaulay said, whereas usually the jury has the advantage of seeing the defendant’s appearance and behavior in court which helps them come to a verdict. He believes it is clear that the jurors “felt sympathetic to the accuser, didn’t have independent evidence to consider and ignored the evidence to the contrary.”

Macaulay, who said a possible re-trial was hardly discussed during the appeal, said there was “some speculation Pell would be acquitted at the end of the second day” as it was so “obvious” that there was “no case to answer,” and that the case “should never have been brought before the Victorian legal system.”

Another source who has followed the trial closely but who asked to remain anonymous said members of the legal profession are concerned with how the complainant’s video evidence has been described by media and victim support groups as “compelling and emotional” when they have not seen, and cannot see, the video testimony.

They have described it in such a way that is “purely based on the guilty verdict,” the source said.  “That, however, does not necessarily constitute truthfulness. The question being asked is: Does compelling mean it is beyond reasonable doubt? Not pointing to this case particularly, but people can present a compelling and even schooled appearance, but does that equate to truthfulness?”

The source said “some who did see the video evidence have a very different view” to the way it has been portrayed in the media and victim support groups.

Another issue of concern, the source added, is that victim support groups are saying this appeal is once again a case of victims not being believed and the Church “still doesn’t get it.”

“The trial judge made the point numerous times that media coverage of the Church and child sexual abuse was not on trial,” the source said. “It was one person and specific allegations. However, many have not seen or reported it that way.”

The source said that it has been pointed out that Cardinal Pell “has every right under the law to appeal the conviction” and that “does not mean he is saying all victims are not believed. In his case, there is very strong argument to support his position.” 

A third source, this one close to Cardinal Pell, shared the following with the Register about the appeal:

It was certainly a couple of intense days for everyone. The cardinal’s legal counsel, Bret Walker, presented his argument on the first day. I think everyone agreed he was forensic, fully across the brief, and presented a very clear, cohesive, and strong case.  At the same time, he answered questions the three judges asked comprehensively. 

On the second day the prosecution’s argument was led by Chris Boyce. Everyone, including those who don’t want to see this conviction overturned, said it really wasn’t his best day. He stumbled, struggled to annunciate a coherent argument, and then mentioned the complainant’s name which is suppressed in these cases. That threw him completely. Walker was able to respond and did so very strongly. 

Members of Pell’s family were in the court on both days along with friends and supporters. The cardinal looked well and, as is his habit, took notes throughout the proceedings. 

His legal team spoke with him before the appeal got underway and said he was keen to get proceedings underway. At the end of the hearing, Cardinal Pell told his lawyers he thought Walker could not have done any better than he did. While he has always maintained his innocence, the outcome now rests with three judges. 

It could be 4-6 weeks before that decision is known. 

Cardinal Pell celebrates his 78th birthday tomorrow. He will not have visitors until Monday but is quite upbeat.

He continues to read, write, exercise and pray. He has received hundreds of letters and cards of support from people here and overseas — many of whom he has never met. He has said he is extremely grateful for these and the many prayers and Masses said for him. He believes this has contributed greatly to his serene approach to his predicament. 

When he bowed to the judges upon leaving the courtroom, he must have been saying a prayer for them and their deliberations.

Macaulay believes it will take a couple of weeks for the appeal judges to reach a majority decision. Should Cardinal Pell be acquitted, the Commissioner for Custodial Services will then give instructions to release him. Two weeks later, the appeals court is expected to publish its reasons. Macaulay said, “This should all play out in the month of June.”