Former Vatican treasurer George Pell appeals against abuse convictions

Cardinal George Pell (centre) was jailed for six years after he was found guilty on five charges of abusing two 13-year-old boys at St Patrick's Cathedral while he was archbishop of Melbourne more than 20 years ago.
Cardinal George Pell (centre) was jailed for six years after he was found guilty on five charges of abusing two 13-year-old boys at St Patrick's Cathedral while he was archbishop of Melbourne more than 20 years ago.PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE (AFP) - Jailed Australian Cardinal George Pell asked appeals court judges Wednesday (June 5) to quash his landmark conviction for child sex abuse, branding the charges against him “bizarre” and “impossible”.

Pell wore a black suit with a clerical collar in his first public appearance since March, shortly after becoming the most senior Catholic worldwide to be convicted for child sex offences.

The 77-year-old was jailed for six years after he was found guilty on five charges of abusing two 13-year-old boys at St Patrick's Cathedral while he was archbishop of Melbourne more than 20 years ago.

“The verdicts represent a disturbing failure of our jury system,” Pell’s submission read. “The verdicts should be quashed.” 

The Vatican’s former number three – who managed the church’s vast finances and helped elect two popes – was sentenced in March to six years in prison, becoming the most senior Catholic ever jailed for child sex abuse.

Wearing his clerical collar and a black suit, and guarded by police, Pell took notes of the proceedings as his lawyer, Bret Walker, detailed a “catalogue” of elements he said should have prevented his client’s conviction.

Walker described the five or six minutes of abuse the 13-year-old boys suffered as a “bizarrely unlikely hotchpotch theory” put forward by the prosecution.

“Evidently, the jury believes the complainant,” Walker said. He said it was “physically impossible” for Pell to abuse the boys due to the discrepancy in the timing of the assaults, the way his archbishop’s robes were worn and that Pell typically mingled with congregants at the western door of the cathedral after mass, when the abuse is said to have taken place.

“The word is alibi,” Walker said, adding that the entire case against the cardinal amounted to a “bizarre unlikelihood”.

“The law of physics tells us this is literally, logically impossible for the offending to have occurred.” 

Central to the defence appeal is that the jury reached an unreasonable verdict based “entirely upon the uncorroborated evidence of the complainant”.

Pell’s second victim died of a drug overdose in 2014 and never officially disclosed the abuse. Lisa Flynn, the lawyer for the deceased victim’s father, said it is not uncommon for people not to report abuse, and even when they are asked directly.

 
 
 

The victim, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was asked directly by his mother if he had been abused. He denied it.

“They suspected something was wrong because of the significant deterioration and the decline in his state closely after (the abuse),” Flynn told Agence France-Presse.

She said it was a “difficult day” for her client, who was watching the proceedings from home, and that he was “very anxious” Pell’s conviction might be overturned.

Two other grounds of appeal, centred on alleged legal mistakes made during the trial, are fallbacks if the first ground fails.  The appeal was being heard by three judges of Victoria State’s Supreme Court: Chief Justice Anne Ferguson, President of the Court of Appeal Chris Maxwell and Justice Mark Weinberg.

The hearing is scheduled to continue until Thursday (June 6) before the three judges make a decision on his case. They could reject the appeal, order a retrial or acquit Pell.

Any ruling could be appealed further to Australia’s High Court.

A first trial in Pell’s case last year ended in a hung jury. He was convicted in December at the end of a second trial, during which the judge, Peter Kidd, described the cleric’s crimes as “brazen”, “nasty” and a “breathtakingly arrogant” abuse of power.

Both trials were hidden from the public until a wide-ranging gag order was lifted in February after a second tranche of charges against Pell, involving alleged incidents in a swimming pool in his home town of Ballarat in the 1970s were dropped.

Jeremy Gans, a criminal justice expert at the University of Melbourne, said before Wednesday’s hearing that there was “a good chance that Pell will succeed” in his appeal.

“It’s unusual for such convictions to be based solely on the account of the victim, with no other evidence of the accused’s guilt whatsoever,” he said.

“And it’s especially unusual for that to happen when there was a second victim (who) never spoke of any abuse and cannot testify.

“That doesn’t mean Pell is innocent or that the jury made a mistake. It just means that the appeal court is likely to find that the jury’s verdict is an unsafe verdict.” 

Outside the court on Wednesday, victims of church sex abuse were distressed by the spectre of Pell being acquitted on appeal.

“The judges and the barristers will play with words,” said Joseph Mitchell. “They haven’t taken any notice of the jury. So here we go again. We’ve just been treated like a pack of fools.”

 
Pell, an outspoken conservative, enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of the church, from a pastor in rural Australia to being one of the pope’s closest advisers.  During his trial under the court-ordered veil of secrecy, the Vatican gradually removed him from top Church bodies with little explanation.

Shortly after his conviction, Pell was removed from the so-called C9 Council of Cardinals that are effectively the Pope’s cabinet and inner circle of advisers.  The Vatican dropped him as the Church’s finance chief and opened its own probe into his actions after his conviction was made public in February. 

The investigation could result in a canonical trial and Pell’s expulsion from the priesthood.