CARDINAL George Pell has lost an appeal against his conviction for the sexual abuse of two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, in the 1990s, when he was the Roman Catholic Archbishop.
It was announced on Wednesday that the Victorian Court of Appeal, by a two-to-one majority, had upheld his conviction on five charges by the Victorian County Court last December (News, 21 December 2018). The Victorian Chief Justice, Justice Anne Ferguson, and the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Chris Maxwell, upheld the conviction. Justice Mark Weinberg dissented.
Cardinal Pell was charged with abusing the choirboys in the cathedral sacristy after Sunday mass in 1996, and the further abuse of one of the boys in the cathedral corridor the following year. Only one of the boys gave evidence against Pell; the other died of a heroin overdose in 2014.
Justice Weinberg, in his reasons, said that “an unusual feature of this case was that it depended entirely upon the complainant being accepted, beyond reasonable doubt, as a credible and reliable witness. Yet the jury were invited to accept his evidence without there being any independent support for it.”
He said that he was not convinced by the complainant’s evidence, and that there was a possibility that some of his evidence was “concocted”.
Justices Ferguson and Maxwell, however, said that they found the complainant a “very compelling witness”, and were convinced that he was telling the truth.
Cardinal Pell, aged 78, is currently serving a six-year sentence, which began in March (News, 15 March). He will not be eligible for parole until he has served three years and eight months of the sentence.
In a statement released after the Appeal Court decision, Cardinal Pell’s lawyers said that they were considering making a special-leave application for an appeal to the High Court of Australia. The statement says that Cardinal Pell continues to maintain his innocence.
The current RC Archbishop of Melbourne, the Most Revd Peter Comensoli, said in a statement that he “respectfully” received the court’s decision and encouraged everyone to do the same. He said that his thoughts and prayers were with “the man who brought this matter before the courts”. The Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference has also accepted the decision, saying that “all Australians must be equal under the law”.
After the decision on Cardinal Pell’s appeal was delivered on Wednesday, the Holy See’s Press Office issued the following statement: “While reiterating its respect for the Australian judicial system, as stated on 26 February after the first instance verdict was announced, the Holy See acknowledges the court’s decision to dismiss Cardinal Pell’s appeal.
“As the proceedings continue to develop, the Holy See recalls that the Cardinal has always maintained his innocence throughout the judicial process and that it is his right to appeal to the High Court.
“At this time, together with the Church in Australia, 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.”
Whether he will lose his 2005 Honour as a Companion of the Order of Australia — the second-highest award of the Australian Honours system — will be decided once “all legal proceedings have run their course”, a statement from the Governor-General, the Hon. David Hurley, said.
Cardinal Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, and then of Sydney from 2001 to 2014. From 2014 until earlier this year, when his term expired, he was Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.