Australia’s highest court agrees to hear Cardinal Pell appeal

Court agrees to hear final appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the most senior Catholic ever to be convicted of child abuse.

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George Pell, once treasurer to the Vatican and the most senior member of the Catholic clergy in Australia, has been given leave to appeal to Australia's highest court over his conviction for child sexual abuse. [File: Mark Dadswell/Reuters]

Canberra, Australia – Australia’s highest court on Wednesday has given disgraced Cardinal George Pell the chance to appeal his child sexual abuse conviction.

Pell, 78, was found guilty last year of the rape and sexual assault of two 13-year-old choirboys in the mid-1990s. He is currently serving a six-year jail term in Melbourne.

Pell was once Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric and the third most powerful one in the world, holding the position of treasurer to the Vatican. He has repeatedly denied the accusations and did not appear in court for Wednesday’s decision. He no longer holds any positions in the church.

The High Court appeal is the final legal avenue for Pell to overturn his conviction and is expected to be heard in early 2020. The full bench of the High Court’s seven justices will hear the appeal, with each justice making their own decision and the case decided on a majority.

Pell, who was previously the archbishop of Melbourne, was unanimously convicted of the two sex offences against children in December 2018 by a jury in Victoria.

He appealed that decision, but it was upheld 2-1 in August.

“The outcome of the [August] appeal, which saw George Pell return to serve his custodial sentence, vindicated the testimony of the survivor who told the truth in the face of extreme power, disbelief and denial,” said Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the Blue Knot Foundation, an organisation that supports adult survivors of childhood abuse.

She told Al Jazeera the original decision to deny an appeal “provided hope to survivors that they too would be believed”.

‘Marked my life’

Pell’s conviction relied heavily on the testimony of a man who alleged Pell had sexually abused him and a male friend in 1996 and 1997. The two were just 13 years old at the time.

Pell’s legal team appealed the verdict, arguing that the man’s testimony was unreliable.

“The journey has taken me to places that, in my darkest moments, I feared I could not return from,” the victim, known only as Witness J, said in a statement at the time of the first appeal in August.

He said he spoke up because “I felt I should say what I saw and what happened to me. I had experienced something terrible as a child, something that marked my life. I wanted at least some good to come of it … After attending the funeral of my childhood friend, the other choirboy, I felt a responsibility to come forward.”

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Australia established a Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse in 2016 at which Pell gave testimony through a video-link from Rome. Victims and their families travelled from across Australia and around the world to attend. [File: David Gray/Reuters]

Two of the three judges who heard the initial appeal believed the survivor spoke truthfully.

“Throughout his evidence, the complainant came across as someone who was telling the truth,” Chief Justice Anne Ferguson said in that decision. “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.” 

The third judge disagreed, leading to Pell’s decision to appeal to the High Court, arguing that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Pell had committed the crimes alleged.

Many prominent Australians gave character witnesses in support of Pell, arguing that he would never have abused children. Former Prime Minister John Howard wrote that Cardinal Pell was “a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character” who “dedicated his life to his nation and his church”.

Lawyer Lisa Flynn represents the father of one of the two schoolboys abused by Pell.

The father became involved in the case after his son died at the age of 31 from a heroin overdose linked to post-traumatic stress disorder.

She said the man was “gutted” by the High Court’s decision.

“The pain is now prolonged,” Flynn told the media. “But he is still hopeful that when the High Court does hear the appeal, that they will ensure that the unanimous jury decision is upheld … He is still hopeful that George Pell will remain the convicted paedophile that he is.”

Source: Al Jazeera