Cardinal Pell loses appeal against conviction for child sex abuse

Former Vatican treasurer George Pell will remain in prison after an Australian appeals court rejected the disgraced cardinal’s appeal against his conviction for sexually assaulting two 13-year-old choirboys in the mid-1990s.

The most senior Catholic official to be convicted of child sexual assault, Pell was sentenced in March to six years in prison, with a non-parole period of three years and eight months, for an attack described by Chief Judge Peter Kidd as “breathtakingly arrogant.”

Lawyers for the 78-year-old cardinal immediately appealed his conviction, and in June presented 13 “solid obstacles” to a guilty verdict on all five charges, including that it was “not possible” for Pell to be alone while robed after Sunday mass and for no one to notice the boys were missing at that time.

On Wednesday, the appeals court rejected that submission, accepting that it was possible for the jury to have found Pell guilty beyond reasonable doubt, based on the evidence presented at Pell’s five-week trial last December.

“There has been vigorous and sometimes emotional criticism of the Cardinal and he has been publicly vilified in some sections of the community,” said Chief Justice Anne Ferguson as she delivered a summary of the judgment. “It is fair to say that his case has divided the community.”

From the dock in court 15, Pell showed little reaction as Chief Justice Ferguson delivered Wednesday’s verdict, which followed more than two months of deliberation between three judges who returned a majority ruling, two votes for and one against. Pell listened intently during the summary, staring straight at the judge.

Pell’s accuser, who can’t be named under Australian law, said he was “relieved” by the verdict.

“After attending the funeral of my childhood friend, the other choirboy, I felt a responsibility to come forward… I had experienced something terrible as a child, something that marked my life. I wanted at least some good to come of it,” he said in a statement read by his lawyer, Viv Waller.

The father of his childhood friend, who also can’t be identified, said the ruling had taken a “weight off his shoulders.”

“I believe in forgiveness, but you can’t forgive someone who does things like that, especially to 13-year-old children,” he said.

After the hearing, Pell was taken away to continue serving his sentence on one count of sexual penetration of a child and four counts of committing an indecent act with a child.

A statement released on his behalf said the cardinal is “obviously disappointed” with the decision and “maintains his innocence.” His legal team will examine the judgment to determine whether to challenge the ruling in the High Court, it added.

In a short statement, the Holy See acknowledged the ruling and noted that Pell has the right to appeal. “The Holy See confirms its closeness to the victims of sexual abuse and its commitment to pursue, through the competent ecclesiastical authorities, those members of the clergy who commit such abuse,” the statement said.

Cardinal’s conviction

Wednesday’s ruling marks another twist in a story that has gripped the global Catholic community since Pell’s conviction was reported in February. Before that, reporting of his trial and verdict had been suppressed to avoid prejudicing a third potential trial, relating to different charges, that was subsequently dropped.

Pell was convicted by a 12-member jury in December, largely on the testimony of one accuser, a man now in his 30s who, as an alleged sex abuse victim, can’t be identified under Australian law. The second alleged victim died several years ago having never told anyone about the alleged attack. It was Pell’s second trial on the same charges — the first trial, also held in secret, ended in a hung jury after the jurors failed to agree on a verdict.

In taped evidence played to a closed court — to only the judge and the jury — the man told how he and his friend had snuck away from the rest of the choir to drink wine in the priest’s sacristy after mass one Sunday. Both were 13 years old at the time.

The man told the court Pell had caught them drinking wine and said something like “you’re in trouble,” according to Judge Kidd’s summary of the case. Pell then started moving something under his robe, the man said, before he sexually assaulted them, one after the other, Judge Kidd’s sentencing notes said. During the ordeal, which lasted five to six minutes, the boys were “sobbing,” the man said in his testimony. At one stage, Pell told them to be quiet, “because they were crying,” Judge Kidd recounted.

Neither boy told anyone about the ordeal, until 2015 when the man approached Victoria Police to file a formal complaint. By then, he had attended the funeral of his former friend, who had died from an accidental overdose after years of drug abuse.

The appeal

At the appeal hearing in June, Pell’s lawyer Bret Walker SC presented a long list of reasons why it was “not possible” for Pell to have committed the alleged attack. He also cast doubt on the man’s account.

In Wednesday’s ruling, Chief Justice Ferguson said she and Justice Chris Maxwell disagreed, saying the victim was “clearly not a liar, was not a fantasist and was a witness of truth.” The dissenting judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, said discrepancies in the victim’s account left him with some doubt.

Pell’s lawyers also appealed the conviction on two other grounds, which would have led to a potential a re-trial. They included that the defense should have been allowed to show an animated video and that Pell should have entered a not guilty plea in front of the jury. Both grounds were refused.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Australia released a statement, saying “all Australians must be equal under the law and accept today’s judgment accordingly.” A Vatican spokesman told CNN on Monday that the church “awaits the results of the ongoing process and the decisions of civil justice before dealing with the case.” When Pell’s guilty verdict was made public, the Vatican said it would launch its own investigation into Pell.

Pell was granted leave from the Vatican to contest the charges. In February, after his conviction became public, the Church confirmed that his position as the prefect of its secretariat for the economy had not been renewed. And, along with two other cardinals, Pell lost his place on the Pope’s small council of advisers last year, which the Vatican attributed to his advancing age.

Pell has 28 days to appeal Wednesday’s ruling in Australia’s High Court, the country’s highest-ranking court. Any ruling made there would be final and not subject to appeal.