AFP-Lawyers for disgraced Cardinal George Pell claimed the senior cleric’s conviction for child sex abuse was based on “improbabilities”, as they launched a last-ditch appeal in Australia’s top court Wednesday.
The 78-year-old former Vatican treasurer, who is serving a six-year sentence for sexually assaulting two choirboys in the 1990s, was not present for the two-day hearing in Canberra.
But supporters gathered outside the High Court building, waving Australian flags and carrying signs that read “keep the faith Cardinal Pell”.
Pell, who once helped elect popes, is the highest-ranking Catholic Church official ever convicted of child sex crimes.
He was found guilty by a jury in December 2018 on five counts of abusing the 13-year-old choirboys at a Melbourne cathedral when he was archbishop of the city.
That verdict was upheld in August 2019 by a three-judge panel that was split in a 2-1 decision.
Prominent Australian barrister Bret Walker, acting for Pell, told the High Court Wednesday there were “compounding improbabilities” in the case that had pitted the powerful clergyman against a former choirboy victim now in his 30s.
Among these, he said, were that the “shocking allegations” of sexual abuse were said to have taken place in a crowded cathedral and another public space, which he argued was “quite different” from typical sexual offending that tended to occur in “covert” settings.
Walker accepted that the trial jury and majority of appeal judges believed the victim’s account, though Pell’s lawyers have previously contended it was a fabrication.
The lawyer argued that belief “does not eliminate” reasonable doubt the offence occurred — saying the victim’s evidence conflicted with witnesses who placed Pell outside the cathedral greeting churchgoers at the time he was said to be abusing the boys.
Walker also said the judges who upheld the guilty verdict had effectively required Pell to establish his innocence, rather than simply raise doubt about the case against him.
“That amounts to a reversal of onus and, most importantly, a misapplication of the essential protection provided by the requirement of proof beyond reasonable doubt,” Walker said.
The prosecution has not yet presented its response, but in written submissions to the court called the appeal “problematic”, saying the defence argument “glosses over evidence” that supports the victim’s account.
The case relied solely on the testimony of Pell’s surviving victim, as the other — who is not known to have ever spoken of the abuse — died of a drug overdose in 2014. Neither man can be identified for legal reasons.
A full bench of seven judges, including Chief Justice Susan Kiefel, is hearing the appeal.
They could quash the appeal immediately, wait several months to hand down their ruling, or even send the case back to a lower court to reconsider.
The high-profile case is being closely watched by Australia’s legal fraternity, the public and the world’s media, with a large queue forming outside the courtroom before the building opened Wednesday.
Pell has been removed from top Church bodies by the Vatican but remains in the priesthood.
The Vatican previously said it would avoid launching an investigation into his conduct until after all legal avenues are exhausted.
The father of the dead victim said he was eager to avoid dragging out an already lengthy process even further.
“This process continues to take a toll on his physical and mental health,” his lawyer Lisa Flynn said Tuesday.
“If the High Court allows George Pell to walk free from jail, our client says he will lose all faith in our legal system,” she added.