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The big story: Cardinal Pell’s appeal fails

Cardinal Pell

What happened

Cardinal George Pell will attempt to make a final appeal against his conviction for child abuse, after the Victoria Supreme Court upheld the conviction by a 2-1 margin.

The Catholic News Agency has reported that Cardinal Pell will try to make his case to the High Court. The Court often refuses to hear appeals, but the cardinal’s legal team has been given hope by one of the Supreme Court judges, Mark Weinberg, who dissented from the other two judges.

In his 200-page opinion, Justice Weinberg said he had a “genuine doubt” that the cardinal had abused two children in 1996-7. In particular, he pointed to a “significant body of cogent evidence casting serious doubt upon the complainant’s account”.

One of the cardinal’s two alleged victims died in 2014, after denying that he had been abused. The other, however, was found by two of the judges to be a “witness of truth”. The cardinal has been sentenced to a minimum of three years and eight months.

What the judges said

The difference between the judges was over the reliability of Cardinal Pell’s one accuser.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Weinberg said that the case had an “unusual feature” in that “it depended entirely upon the complainant being accepted, beyond reasonable doubt, as a credible and reliable witness”. The jury “were invited to accept his evidence without there being any independent support for it”.

The two judges who voted to uphold the conviction said that “Throughout his evidence,” the alleged victim “came across as someone who was telling the truth.” They said it added to his credibility that he was unable to remember some details – for instance, whether the door was open or closed in the sacristy where the alleged abuse took place.

The abuse allegedly occurred after Mass at the cathedral – but Cardinal Pell’s master of ceremonies Charles Portelli told the court that the cardinal had not been left alone after Mass. However, the judges wrote, Portelli “did not have any independent recollection of the particular Sundays in December 1996”.

Cardinal Pell’s lawyers said that it would have been impossible for the cardinal to part his archbishop’s vestments to abuse the children in the manner that had been claimed. But the two majority judges disagreed, saying that the vestments were “well capable of being manoeuvred”.

Justice Weinberg wrote: “From … the complainant’s evidence, it can be seen that there was ample material upon which his account could be legitimately subject to criticism. There were inconsistencies, and discrepancies, and a number of his answers simply made no sense.”

What commentators said

David Marr, a prominent critic of Pell’s, wrote in the Guardian: “He displayed once more his Olympian detachment. Don’t believe reports that he flinched. His lips pursed a little as he stared at the judges. That’s all.” Then he “left with good grace, a formal nod to the bench and a slow walk from the room”.

Gerard Bradley, a professor of law at Notre Dame, wrote in the National Catholic Register: “Knowing the cardinal as I do, and evaluating the evidence reported in light of my years as a Manhattan trial prosecutor, I have always confidently believed that Cardinal Pell is innocent.” One “small mercy” of the appeal process, Bradley wrote, was that it had made details of the court case public – and “I am now certain that Cardinal Pell is innocent.” As Weinberg had recognised, “The complainant’s credibility and thus the accuracy of his story must instead be evaluated in light of the competing evidence of Cardinal Pell’s innocence.”

Michael Pelly of the Australian Financial Review said the High Court is likely to hear the appeal: Justice Weinberg is “so highly regarded that a decision not to test his views would be a surprise”. The criminal defence lawyer Peter O’Brien told the Guardian that the chances of the High Court agreeing to hear the case were “slim”, because the court tends to focus not on “questions of fact” but on “matters of law”. But according to Chip le Grand in The Age, ‘‘legal experts familiar with the workings of the High Court” believe that the appeal could be heard on the grounds of “a broad provision which allows the court to intervene in any case ‘in the interests of the administration of justice’.”